process: plein-air painting

Creating art is a highly personal experience. There is almost no end to the possibilities with so many different approaches and tools available. One of my true loves is plein-air painting.

When I set out to paint, the whole process is brought about by the feeling I get from simply being with a scene and how it moves me. It's all about the feeling, and then of course, the challenge in execution.

I carry with me different proportional viewfinders, (a dimensional hole cut into card-board). I look through them to check the possibilities of a given scene, its composition, lighting, proportion and esthetic possibilities. I consider if what I am painting will still be there long enough for me to get an image down as in the case of a horse, or an old truck of a building under construction. I walk around surveying the situation, back and forth until it feels right. When I have my location chosen I drop my viewfinder on the spot and I go to fetch all my equipment parked nearby.

Once I set up my easel, pull out my brushes, align my canvas, the excitement ensues! The pace is steady and with total concentration. This is what is so exciting and at times so frustrating. I begin with simple lines to anchor the composition, then I block in some of the simple shapes. The mass of the sky is next, with a wash of color and thinner to "kill" the white of the canvas. At this point I may be into the painting for twenty minutes or so.

Next I focus in on the focal point of the painting and work for a good proportional relationship between it and the other elements in the painting. The more accurate I am at this point, the smoother the rest of the painting goes and the enjoyment is heightened. The finish of the painting may be a few hours to a few days. In the case of a larger painting, I return the next day 1-3 hours before the peak of the hour I establish in the painting.

In dealing with the elements, anything can happen, at anytime. Sunny turns cloudy, cloudy turns windy, windy turns into a dust storm or rain—even hail! This creates an urgency to stay alert and intense in execution. When the changes come, sometimes I go with the flow and keep painting, at other times I have to stop the process. In a way it all feels like fishing to me. When I get home, sometimes I return with gems, and other times, with nothing. It's all part of the "hunt".

The Hundred Pound Sherman
Over the years I have experimented with different combinations of equipment. I never found anything pre-made that worked for all occasions. For example, in La Veta, where I painted a lot, the wind could be relentless. I can't remember how many times I glued my former easel back together, adding more weight to it, only to watch it tumble end over end, again. The challenge is that in mounting a canvas of any size, it becomes like a sail on a ship creating that toppling leverage.

One solution was to build a heavy-duty steel easel. It weighs slightly over 100 pounds and looks like a machine-gun mount, but the wind does not budge it! I call it the "Sherman" and I haul it around in a pickup. I also built a sturdy box with wheels onto which I strap my light wooden easel. With this, I can haul it up a trail. It all depends on where I am painting and what the conditions are. My lightest rig is the "half" easel and backpack. Despite inherent difficulties in hauling equipment around, in my car or on my back and in all weather, I love the outdoors.