January 29, 2016

The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

Lemon Tree, soft pastel, 8X10 plein air study

painting in progress

I'm back in Santa Barbara for my yearly painting/teaching trip.  This time I have taught a four day plein air workshop in soft pastel.  I have always loved soft pastel and it felt good to focus on my first love again.  I generally paint oils en plein air as they withstand the elements of rain, hail, etc., better than pastel does.  But when the weather is fine, pastel is a wonderful medium to use in the field.

I have included the finished study along with a photo of the scene painted and the painting in progress.  This lemon orchard was a very complex subject matter - lots of detail, values and colors that were really close together - it was tough to sort out visually.

As painters, we have to create a design...that was the first order of business, so I chose a lemon tree that was about twenty yards away and laid in the shape, darks first.  It would be the "star" and all the other elements just supporting actors.  I edited waaaaay down as you can see.  The sun came and went changing the background hills considerably in both value and temperature (which is why they are different than what you see in the photo) and I stuck with what I had originally seen.

There are a lot of decisions to be made in the field, and they have to be made quickly. 

DESIGN - decide what you are going to make your painting about, and then arrange the major tonal masses to shore up your decision and create an interesting light and dark pattern.  SQUINT down to see if the values you are painting match those in your landscape.

EDIT - what can you leave out?  what is superfluous?

EXECUTE - You don't have all day!  Aim for getting all of the color and value masses in place in the first half hour of your painting, and bring your best concentration.   This also helps you to paint BIG shapes first, which is always a good idea.   Use a color isololator to help you get all the color and value relationships accurate on your first try.  Corrective painting takes up a lot of valuable time.

Above all, remember that in the end  this is an excercise that will make you a better painter, win lose or draw. It's great to turn out a  little gem, but that does not always happen, even for the most experienced plein air painter.   You will live to paint another day.

I have another two weeks here and the weather is fine.  Today I paint in the San Ynez valley, and shall send you some images of that next.  What a lucky duck I am, honestly.

Happy painting!


ps, my right hand is healing beautifully, and I find I am still picking up the brush or pastel with my left hand out of habit...I could be onto something here. Two handed painting - hmmmm.


  1. So glad to hear your hand is healing well and you are out there having fun Gaye!

  2. Ok, I love your title for this post. I may borrow that for one of the classes I teach. Great paintings and sorry to hear about the hand. Hang in there.