Plein air at the Botanical Gardens (and the importance of planning)

It has been so dark and rainy the last week it’s been impossible to photograph any artwork, but soon I will post an update on my latest studio painting. Meanwhile, finally, we are seeing the sun! Yay! To celebrate the occasion, I did a little plein air painting at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens.

There is so much to paint at these beautiful gardens that it is really hard to narrow the choices down sometimes. But with limited time before the school bell rang,  I motored straight over to the Grace Arents Victorian Gardens in front of the Bloemendaal House. I had eyed these gardens a couple of weeks prior when I took my daughter and niece to see the butterfly exhibit and play in the Children’s Garden, and I was hoping and praying it still looked as beautiful as it had then and that the rain hadn’t washed all of the flowers off.

I was in luck. It was still gorgeous. Summer blooms lingered but the foliage in the trees was tinged with autumn. Here is my setup, with my new Coulter paint box:


You might notice I have a little notebook propped up that I’m going to reference as I work. This is a VERY quick notan sketch that doesn’t look like much to anyone but me. But it’s basically a short hand way to map out my design and quickly separate my lights from darks:


 The very fine painter (and terrific teacher) Kevin Macpherson more correctly identifies these broadly defined values as the ”light family” and the “shadow family”.  The idea is to lay down in broad strokes (I used a fat sharpie) everything in the shadow family with the dark value, and leaving everything in the light family as the white of the paper. It is so, so easy to succumb to the desire to jump into a painting without much prior planning, especially out in the field when the light is changing and the pressure’s on. But when I take the time to do these notans,  I find that the approach helps me to solidify in my mind no only how the painting will hold together conceptually, but also how I can stick with my plan to the end, even when the light changes.

Now that I have my plans, I sketch in a crude design in a very quick and general way again, but this time on my canvas using burnt sienna:

Once this quick sketch is down, I set about blocking in, starting with the shadow family:

I steer away from local color at this point. At the early stage I lay in the dark values focusing on the color temperatures I see in the shadows. Generally (but not always) the shadow colors are on the cool side on a bright sunny day, especially as the scene recedes.

And here, above, I’ve fleshed out the shadows a bit more and I begin addressing the light family. At this stage to two families are coming together a bit like puzzle pieces.  I keep things fairly broad for as long as I can, and restrain myself from getting bogged down in detail and refinements until the end stages of the game.

At this point I pause and take a snapshot of my palette. I needed a scrape down to make some more room for fresh paint, but I took this shot around the time of the stage above, for the purpose of showing the “two families” as I mixed.

 I am working hard at paying better attention to the way I organize my mixtures on my palette. While I’m still not perfect at this, (you can see a couple of stray darks sneaking in around the lower edges), organizing my palette by separating the mixtures in the shadow family from those in the light family helps me to organize those same families on the canvas. Again I must credit Kevin Macpherson for this concept.   Note, this is a very broad range of color for me, as for a very long time I stuck with a limited palette of red, yellow, and blue (plus white). But I am having a good time experimenting with color and some of the tertiary colors, while not imperative, serve as “convenience colors” for me when I know I am not going to have much plein air time. (Which is pretty much all the time these days.)

Okay, this is a far as I got with my step-by-step. At this point in the process I recall looking at the time and realizing that I needed to “bring it home” if I had any hope of finishing before I had to pick up my daughter from school. So without further ado, here is the final painting:

“A Change of Season”,   Oil on linen, 8×10″ ©Jennifer Young

“A Change of Season”, Oil on linen, 8×10″ ©Jennifer Young