Lavender and Hay Bales, Sault, Provence – oil on panel, 7 x 5 inches
This was one of my last paintings from Julian’s workshop in Provence last month.
As usual, despite spending ages deciding which view to paint, I made a few mistakes during set up.
The main mistake I made with this one was having too much shade on the panel. The problem with that is that your colours will look darker to you as you put them down than they really are. So the tendency is to paint too light.
So I would have expected to have some major value problems with this one.
But the more I’ve thought about this after I got back home, the more I think that the reason I didn’t is that I have a fairly well developed mental model of the colour space of paint in my head.
What I mean by that is:
- I know pretty much the range of light to dark that I can reach
- I know pretty much the range of chroma I can reach at different hues
- And I have a good idea how to mix colours in every area of the colour space, regardless of what tube colours I have on my palette
I’ve developed that mental model through a lot of patient practice. Matching colours exactly and painting cubes and spheres may not be the most interesting way to spend your easel time, but it does teach you a huge amount about colour and light rather quickly.
Having that model of the colour space of paint internalised meant that I knew that the lightest parts of the hay bales were going to be the lightest parts of the painting, so I had to establish the value for them first (usually that would be the sky, but in this one so there wasn’t any – a compositional choice I made at the start).
I knew that the darkest parts of the grasses at the front would be the darkest value in the painting.
So once I had both of those those in I could relate everything else to them. That’s what I meant in my first plein air post about painting plein air when I said that it’s all about comparison, since you can’t match the values you see.
Within that, there’s still a huge amount of variation in the way the values can be interpreted. But it seems to me that establishing the darkest dark and lightest light early on is even more important in plein air painting than any other kind.
And although that kind of patient, diligent practice is a great teacher, I’m realising that sometimes it can be a good idea to throw yourself into an extreme situation and, well, cope.
I read a story some time ago about Brazillian footballers, in the book Bounce by Matthew Syed. These players have a serious reputation. In an interview, one footballer was relating how they practiced.
Because they didn’t have much space, they played in small areas with small, hard balls. That made them very fast. Extreme football. And that speed of reaction and thought was still with them when they played on a normal sized field.
In the same book, there’s a great story about the English table-tennis team meeting the Japanese Team for the first time. The Japanese game was incredibly fast, and only one English payer could keep up with them.
This player had learned in a small shed, pushed up against the table with no space behind him. Since he couldn’t get back from the table, he had to think and react extremely quickly. And that speed stayed with him in a normal sized space.
And I think en painting plein air is a bit like this. You have to deal with an extreme value range, probable personal discomfort, composition, colour – and sometimes ant bites – all at the same time, and against the clock because the light is continually changing.
So when you do some of that and come back to the studio, you’re that much better at dealing with all those things at once.
Except the ants, hopefully.
Of all the paintings I did while I was there, I think I was happiest with this one. It had the most sunlight in it.
The year is beginning to turn. The last few days have been rainy in the Cotswolds, I have a feeling that there will be less opportunities now to get out and paint.
But Autumn is coming. When we moved here last October, the trees were a beautiful autumn gold. It was breath-taking. I’m hoping to catch some of that in paint before too long.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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