Time for a round up of some recent plein air adventures.
Much of the spring and summer feels a bit lost, passed without enough outdoor adventure or friendly painting meet ups. But I have managed to get out several times, to places where any other people were at a Covid-safe distance.
From the southeast was the only direction I’d previously not explored the potential views towards Glastonbury, and it turned out to be much the best. The river Brue meanders in this direction and a footpath follows its embankment. I didn’t see anyone during my time there. There were many other spots I could have chosen, with some tempting old willow trees nearly diverting me from doing what I’d come to do – a panoramic with the tor and a big sky.
I took my camera with me to film this one as a demo, and since the painting turned out okay it will be one of the four demonstration paintings on my upcoming video. Painting while being filmed is always a different experience. Firstly, my camera needs to be stopped and re-started every 20 minutes, for which I set the interruption of a kitchen timer! This really disrupts any sense of ‘flow’ to the painting process. Additionally, you have to simultaneously avoid tightening up (wanting to paint well) with painting as fast as possible, so that the demo doesn’t need editing down too much!
A very different subject here, with a complex cluster of boats and indescernable boaty ‘stuff’ intermingled with the grasses. This is a really nice place to visit to paint, or just to walk along the coast westwards, where there are nature reserves and there’s always a very relaxed atmosphere. I was potentially going to paint the ruined church up on the clifftop (shown in another recent blog post) but I want to do that particular scene in sunlight, which I didn’t have on this occasion. It was great plein air weather though; about 18 degrees C, a moderate (typical) coastal breeze and at least fairly consistent light – being a dull one in this case.
The complexity was an enjoyable challenge. Lots to convey (or leave out) as simply as possible. I’m not sure I’ve made it very simplified still, but this was one where I thoroughly enjoyed the entire ‘journey’ of the painting; not deciding too much about how I’d approach the difficult aspects, just going about it quite spontaneously, or intuitively, and seeing what happened. In fact I do this most often these days, as for me it’s where the pleasure lies. Some things worked better than others of course, and there is quite a bitty and scratchy quality to the overall result. Probably one where many watercolourists I know would get out the gouache for some of the whites. Sensible, probably. But I can never resist seeing how I’ll get on with negative painting and scratching. However well or otherwise this turns out I’m quite happy for it to be my way, and as I say, I enjoy the challenge of it. If we all did things the same way, our work would look more samey, too.
I wanted to make quite a lot of drama out of the church on the cliff. It’s obviously a great landmark of Uphill (which is just a mile or so from Weston-Super-Mare) and major part of this composition. So I depicted it as deeply shadowed, with a gap of light in the clouds above. I shortened the length of the hill adjoining to the right and also pulled in the sailing club building. I thought these were useful different shapes and elements for the composition.
This was a subject I spotted from the car one day in spring. This old tree and crossroads are at the highest point on a rise above Saltford and Keynsham. The tree is so characterful from most directions and well worthy of a portrait. Slightly precariously perched on a narrow verge, I went for this option because of how the sign post and distant wooded hill combined with the tree.
It was quite windy and mostly cloudy, and morning. The latter meant that even if the sun came out there would be no shadow from the tree across the roads, so I accepted this from the outset. Shadows can be helpful in that way, often adding quite a lot, but I am not one who thinks you need sunlight and shadow always. In fact I love the atmosphere of days like this. I decided on where the big bits of cloud would intercept my tree shape before starting, in order to hopefully balance things well. This came out pretty much to plan (see image further down) – which was nice. But then I began to struggle….
The previous time I’d been out painting I made a right mess (I’ve wiped the picture from my mind) and this time I was now making things hard work again. The tree was so worthy that I think this can make me get overly anxious, wanting to convey it too carefully. It’s a tricky balance. On the one hand, I’ve learned that to really do justice to the beauty and character of trees, if you stray much from the exact balances/proportions within their shape then you can easily lose those qualities. On the other hand, this can lead to stifled markmaking and a laboured result. In the end I really wasn’t happy, but I know that this is one subject where I am particularly critical because (I have to admit) I always want to achieve my best in the result. There’s no subject I want to pay tribute to more than an old tree! I truly didn’t manage it in the way I’d wanted, but kind of pulled the tree together in the end. The painting took me a couple of hours, I think, whereas a different day this subject would have been less than one. Lots of squinting and thinking. I also had quite a few friendly chats with many passing cyclists, who were doing a charity ride that day.
‘Can you get me in it?’ was greeting of the day. I think I had that about 6 times in some form. To be fair, my plein air painter’s cliched reply to “it looks good from here” of “well, probably the further down the road you go, the better it’ll look”, though equally unoriginal, actually elicited a laugh or two! These little meetings with people are one of the best things about plein air painting. It’s a fear for many who are new to painting outdoors. I understand that and remember it well, but I think most people really get a boost from these interactions with others when they go outdoors. I know I do.
This one was from a walk on the Mendip hills, from another village to this little hamlet I ended up at. I’d noticed – again from a car journey – that this part of Somerset particularly has a lot of big old farmland trees in the hedgerows. Sadly not common. So another day I found a place to park and with the trusty OS Maps phone app followed some footpaths past many a good tree to this spot.
I took a lot of photos of the trees, which I plan to return to another time, and also a lot of photos of the sky, which had great clouds this day. This spot was on the footpath across a sheep field, but sheep certainly don’t bother you and I didn’t see anyone here except a few cars and cyclists passing along the road beyond the gate. The sun didn’t come out much, but for this one I did want it to light up the church, so I ended up pretty much making up that aspect. It did come out a couple of times very briefly, and enough to quickly see the gist of it. On days when I’ve planned to go out and have a particular location (even composition) in mind – which is regularly the case – then I do check the sun position (in relation to google Satellite View) and make sure I go out in either the morning or afternoon as necessary. Doesn’t always work out, of course, as it can cloud over anyway.
(Then again, with the previous tree portrait I knew that post-2pm would give me shadows across the road, but I just felt like going out in the morning that day regardless, and sun wasn’t in the forecast at all).
With this painting a few early decisions I made were to enhance some negative shapes and counterchanges of tone (and invented the cross on the left).
At the end, I made up the shadow on the barn roof (which was intended as a cloud shadow, but could it be from the church tower?) There were some swallows active around the barns, so since there were wires I decided to put them on those for a change. It adds a bit of life and some very small marks, but also help depict the wires without actually painting them. These things are final touches (added just after I took the easel/scene photo, as you can see) and the sort of thing that can help appreciably to pull a painting together. I find it pays to take your eyes off the painting for a good while when you’re close to finishing. Go and talk to the sheep or something. Then returning to the painting some of the remaining problems leap out, and these little touches can help. This is another fine balancing act, though, as you have to avoid looking around and noticing things you’ve not painted, which really don’t want adding!
This one was a bit of a laugh, as it was ridiculously windy. The board was wobbling all over the place but my trusty easel stayed put – just about. This abandoned looking farmstead has such a good arrangement of shapes and old features clustered together, which are rare to find in a farm these days. Even better from a slightly different angle but that would involve straying slightly off the footpath and flattening a bit of hay, so we don’t want to do that…
I’d found this scene when out walking last year in winter and in fact I painted it then, too (only just remembering this now as I write) but I didn’t do it any justice so was always going to come back. On this day I did think the wind might be a bit much, as this location is quite high up on a hill near Dundry, which overlooks Bristol. I wasn’t wrong. However, I thought it would potentially be good to film for the video, showing another side to the pleasures and trials of plein air painting! It was one of those where your left hand ends up aching from gripping the palette so tightly and your brush reliably misses the intended spot. Still, viewing the result a while later I thought it was not too awful, so it’s on the video.
Finally, this was a commission. I’d love to have been able to visit the location myself, as is always the preferred case with commissions, but it isn’t always possible. The particular challenges here were:
The photos were of a ‘blanket cloud’ type day, so not enabling much visible information of the cliffs or other features – of which there aren’t many. The beach is actually quite bland and just neutral grey stones entirely. I needed to convey the scale of the hill, which is a very high part on the Exmoor coast (too far away for me to visit). So I used a bit of artistic licence, as discussed with the client and exampled for them in sketch form.
If you are interested in potentially commissioning a painting please contact me. I don’t always take on commissions, as I’ll only do so if I think I can do a good enough job based on the reference material available and other factors, but I’m always very happy to discuss the possibilities with no obligation.
Until next time, stay safe and hopefully get in some good painting.