Shaded Track in Provence, oil on panel 7 x 5 inches.
So here is my first ever plein air painting!
Well, I suppose that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
When I was on my foundation year at art college (post-school, pre-university) I spent quite a bit of time wandering around the North Yorkshire Moors, where I lived, doing little studies that then became very large paintings of rocks.
So it’s not quite the first. But it’s the first time I tried to to make a finished piece completely en plein air, and the first time I’ve painted outside for, erm, 30 years. I think.
I was so excited when I started this. And anxious.
Immediately the value problem became very obvious. How was I to translate that wide value range in the world out there to something that made sense on my little panel?
And more than that, how was I to create a feeling of light in the painting?
What I went for was a form of value compression called (in Harold Speed’s book The Practice and Science of Drawing) bottom up.
What that means is that you start with your darkest dark – in this case the large tree shape on the right.
Then you try to paint the next main value area up, trying to make the relationship the same, or close to, what you see.
As you move up the value scale this way, you very quickly get to the top end, the lightest part of the scale. So a lot of your picture ends up quite light, but with a dark accent to anchor the value relationships at the bottom.
I’ve played with this way of controlling values before in interior painting, but it was much harder to do in the landscape.
What actually happened is that I tried for this approach, and then did a huge amount of correction and adjustment as I went along.
It’s hard to describe the mix of desperation and excitement I felt whilst I wrestled with this little painting, trying to create a feeling of the strong Provence sun without going overboard.
Julian gave me some great help with the composition towards the end, simplifying the shadow shapes on the road. He advised me not to have anything distracting happen in the bottom inch or so of the painting. I removed the patches of light there and immediately the focus seemed to shift towards the point where the road disappears from view.
So that part of the painting became the focus. I sharpened edges there, and dropped a couple of trees on the left that were distracting. The painting became a stronger arrangement and started to make sense.
One of the valuable things I learned from this first foray was that editing nature is fine – in fact it’s a good idea, if you want to create something that works as a picture. And when you’re up against changing light and time is running away from you, you need to be selective.
Of course I’m used to doing that to an extent with still life, particularly flowers. But it became much more of a necessary part of the process with this painting, and with all the ones I did after this one – which I’ll be posting soon.
I’m so tempted still to keep this one as some kind of memento, but I also believe that part of being a professional painter is letting even the ones that are special to you go.
I’m hoping it’ll be good practice for when I have to do the same with my kids!
Best wishes and thanks for reading,