The Trials of Painting Outdoors

Leave behind the comfort of your home art space—whether kitchen table, corner desk, or complete studio— and you’ll soon find an immediacy and sense of discovery that come from working directly from nature. Granted, you’ll be trading comfortable seating, fixed light, and a full suite of art supplies for less certain conditions. But you’ll be able to observe details, see colors, and experience your subjects firsthand in ways that will make your artwork more vibrant and alive.

At least, that’s the ideal. This week, however, painting outdoors brought significant trials: bright sun dried my paint too fast in the garden and the most annoying and insidious bugs attacked me one evening while painting irises. Was it worth it? Of course. But I’ll forever look at these irises and see myself swatting bugs in vain with a paint brush.

Tips and Techniques- Try different approaches to painting. Here, I’ve used my go-to ink sketch followed by watercolor for In the Garden and then painted directly with watercolor with no initial sketch for the irises. The bugs forced me to work quickly and let the paint run freely, which led to some nice mixing on the paper. You can see that my session with the irises was cut short. This could use a bit more definition, but I wanted leave it alone and perhaps start over, without the bugs.

Fast and Fleeting

The glory days of springtime come fast and fleeting. Miss the trillium, and you have to wait a whole year to see it again. Migrating birds come, feed, and leave again while we sleep or work or are otherwise distracted. There never seems to be enough time in my spring; no way to capture it all before the symphony of greens gives way to summer. Still, I’ve managed some quick sketches in the woods and I was fortunate to be home when a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks showed up at the feeder.

Green Giant

It’s good to see this old sugar maple in our front yard wearing a mantle of greenery again. Moss covered and with new leaves unfolding, it’s tangled mass of old limbs drew me in. After an hour or so, the black flies drove me away.

Tips and Techniques– I started this as an ink drawing and worked until it was quite detailed. I could have, and maybe should have, left it there, with just a light wash of bright green for the leaves. I had that “fork in the road” feeling—not sure whether to add more color or let it be. Sometimes I walk away at that point, coming back later with greater clarity of direction. Sometimes I leap, follow a hunch, take the risk, and hope for the best. What do you do when you reach that fork in the road with a painting?

Believer in Ferns

Come back
believer in shade
believer in silence and elegance

believer in ferns
believer in patience
believer in the rain
— W.S. Merwin (Empty Water)

How good to be out in the greening woods, despite the occasional rain and still cold spring day. Good to see ferns unfurling and mayapples reaching up out of last year’s leaves and a single ruby red trillium.

Tips and Techniques– My simple tip this week is to let observation and delight drive your sketching. Go out with no agenda and see what strikes you. I was drawn in by the variety of fiddleheads when I started looking more closely at them unfurling in the woods – some hairy, some smooth, some reddish-brown, others bright yellow-green. Had I gone out with a pre-planned idea of what I wanted to paint, I might never have seen them.

Small Signs of Spring

When art takes a backseat to the rest of my life, I find it helpful to use a grid. Setting up a framework of small squares in my journal allows me the flexibility to fill them as time allows over a period of days or weeks. I started this grid in March, knowing that a hectic schedule lay ahead. This grid started with a set of six squares per page but, as you can see, the squares can be combined vertically or horizontally to fit the subject at hand. I especially like how a grid page can capture so much of a day, week, or month in just a few small spaces.

Tips and Techniques: Set up a grid in pencil with evenly spaced squares and an even amount of white space between them. You don’t have to plan what will go in them. When you have a subject you want to sketch, choose a box and add it. If your subject is quite vertical or horizontal, combine boxes to suit the shape. You can combine as many boxes as you want, or none at all. I tend to skip around the page, based on the shapes, and outline each box at the end.

Return

Sometimes it’s February, sometimes March when the red-winged blackbirds return. Regardless, it’s a welcome and exuberant racket of wingbeats and squawking from the marshes and treetops. It doesn’t necessarily mean that spring is here; indeed, today, a flock swarmed over our yard and flew off just as it began to snow. But it means we’ve turned the corner: more light, more days above freezing than below, and more good things to come.

Tips and Techniques– I wanted to zoom in on the shapes of the birds in flight, rather than the details, and let some of the birds merge, the way they do in a flock. To do this, I used a loose wash of ultramarine and burnt sienna to create the black, and tried to drop in a bit of yellow and red before the birds got too dry. I like the way the red merged into the dark mix, creating a dusky purple on some of the wings. I suspect this would work better at a larger size, where you could really get some nice color variation and more mixing right on the paper.

Reds

My previous post on tulips left me eager for more reds, though this week, I’m back to birds and words. What better choice  for reds than the Northern Cardinal, the most colorful bird at my feeder in winter? But isn’t red just red, you ask? Well, absolutely not. You can see that I’ve experimented with different reds (and yellow) here— mixing combinations of transparent reds in a range of warm and cool tones. Other than alizarin crimson, these aren’t colors I use frequently, so this was a worthwhile experiment.

Tips and Techniques– Here’s the line up of colors at the top: Nickel Azo Yellow, Quin Magenta mixed with Transparent Pyrrole Orange, Vermillion, and Alizarin Crimson. The Vermillion looks heavy because it’s Dr. Ph. Martin’s Synchromatic Transparent Water Color, an intense liquid watercolor that I’ve had in my desk for years, but rarely use. The point here isn’t to go out and buy any of these colors, but to experiment with your own. Try mixing the ones on your palette (or in your drawer) to see how much they will do for you.