Independence Day

It was hot and humid and overcast. Our baby had been sick part of the week prior and through the long weekend with a 102 degree fever and hand, foot and mouth virus. And to top it all off, we woke up on July 4th sticky and without power from a tremendous summer storm the night before. But believe it or not, I had a great morning, as I was allowed the privilege of escaping getting outside early to do this little plein air painting.

 plein air painting of water by Jennifer Young "Pond Reflections" Oil on board, 12"x9" Click here for more info, or just contact me to purchase.

The location is Young's Pond in nearby Bryan Park. I've painted this location before a number of times, and this approximate scene once before, which you can see here. There were a number of nearby spots I could have chosen, but on an overcast day it's nice to paint a water effect, as then you have some luminosity built in, when the light is otherwise fairly flat.

I spent about 3 hours on site working on this piece, which was longer than I normally would do on location. But I think the combination of fairly steady light conditions, and my private glee at having the entire morning completely to myself kept me lingering longer than I would have otherwise.

Here's a shot of my setup right before I started.

plein air painting setup

Next time I would like to get out even earlier than I did, to try and capture that wonderful atmosphere (aka humidity) before it settles into just plain old hot heavy air. But with a baby, you gotta do what you gotta do, and I was happy to get out at all. My setup has remained pretty consistent over the years, with my Soltek easel still being my go to plein air easel due to the ease of use and quick setup time.

The sun made its appearance often enough that shading myself, my painting, and my palette was a concern. I brought my umbrella with me, but it is a pain to set up and doesn't really work that great with the Soltek (one of the easel's down-sides...I've yet to find a really compatible umbrella that can attach to it without falling over.) So If I can get away without, I usually do. This often means avoiding standing in the blazing sun, even if it means forgoing a preferred view. Otherwise my painting ultimately suffers (not to mention my skin.)

In this photo I've set up my painting panel so that the sun (when it peeks out) is behind it, making it shaded. I am relatively shaded by tree branches overhead. Since I am right-handed, my subject is to my left, so that I am not having to reach across my painting when I look/paint. Often times I can shade my palette simply by wedging another panel between it and my painting. In this case I am using a flat wet panel carrier called the Art Cocoon.

This is actually a pretty neat concept for a wet panel carrier, which I read about some time ago on another artist's blog (when I still had time to read them) owned by Ed Terpening . The advantage is that you can use the carrier for different sized paintings with the provided inserts, and it is nice and lightweight and not bulky. But the down side for me is that it is made out of cardboard, which eventually warps (especially in our hot Virginia climate) and when that happens it stops protecting the painting effectively.

For that reason, my go-to wet panel carrier is still the RayMar. It's a little more expensive, and bulkier, but still lightweight. And its coroplast construction means that while it won't last forever, it lasts a good long time and doesn't warp.

Oil paints bursting in flight?

Here is a recent question from a reader that I thought I'd share at blog central:

I am planning to bringing 100s of oil paint tubes back from Beijing and I am wondering if they are at a high risk of bursting? Your advice would be highly appreciated. Best, J.

...and my response:

Dear J- If these are tubes of artist's oil paints, my experience has been that there wouldn't be much danger of that. After all, they are regularly shipped all over the world. And while some paints do contain driers and additives that are considered combustible, most are made with just pigment and a nut oil or linseed oil.

But don't take my word as law. Most of the well known brands will provide material safety data sheets (MSDS) for their art materials, which should provide a flash point of the paint in question (combustibility at a given temperature). You could always check the information provided on the MSDS with the airlines to see what their restrictions are. Most likely you will need to check the paints if you are flying commercially. Otherwise they could get confiscated if you try to bring them in your carry-on (but you probably are already aware of that!)

Good luck! (And check out a prior, more detailed post of mine on flying with oil paints from more info.)

Painting on a colored ground

Every so often I'll get a question about my painting process that I think might be an interesting topic to share here on my blog. Recently an artist friend asked me about the red ground I prepped my canvases with at one time (I think he must have seen the "Springtime Glory" demo from my site). I'm sure I've addressed toning a canvas a few times here on the blog, but since I've been asked about painting on a red canvas a number of times, I thought it would be a good idea to address this question specifically. Here is his question, followed by my response: Question: Are you still using red underpainting most of the time? Is that landscape specific or do you switch up for sky/water? 

My response: As for the red ground, I never use it any more. I really only used it for landscapes. It was fun because the underpainting gave vibratory effect due to it being a complement to the greens.  But it was too much of a distraction for sky and water, and ultimately I personally found it so for all of my landscapes, especially as I moved a little closer to realism.  Plus I got too lazy to tone my canvases that color as I'd have to let it dry first. Otherwise the red would lift and get mixed into my painting too much. Now in the studio I either just paint on a white canvas, or tone it with just a quick wash of transparent red  oxide (a.k.a PR101- the color I used in the tonal underpainting here).  That still adds a warm tone but is muted enough that it doesn't distract. It also isn't as high staining so I can apply a wash and then start painting immediately after.

*This artist is a studio painter, but I'll add here for the benefit of my blog readers that if I'm painting outdoors, I pretty much always use a mid-toned canvas of either gray, or a wash of trans red oxide or raw sienna, as sun on the white canvas creates too much  bounce and glare.

Bellagio from above; more oil painting w/out solvents

Following up from my prior WIP, here is the final painting. This is a view of Bellagio from a hike we took up to Villa Serbelloni. The villa is now maintained by the Rockefeller Foundation, who uses it as a retreat for  the Bellagio Study and Conference Center for artists and writers (wouldn't that be nice?) For this reason, we couldn't go inside the villa when we visited, but we could tour the grounds, which offers gorgeous views over Bellagio.

Oil painting of Bellagio, Italy

"Bellagio From Above" Oil on Linen, 20x16"


Both this piece and my previous Lake Como painting, were done without the use of solvents or any other medium other than small amounts of walnut oil to clean brushes and thin paint when necessary. But even when used judiciously, the walnut oil served to slow drying considerably. At present this is not a huge problem, as I am spending most of my time painting/renovating/preparing home and life for the new baby! But it does change the nature of things and the overall result became more impressionistic due both to the behavior of the paint, and probably also the gaps in my working sessions.

I know that an oil painting requires a certain length of time for all of the layers to fully dry (sometimes as much as 6 months or a year.) But normally the top layers will dry to the touch in about a week's time.  Not so with the walnut oil method, which seems to require at least an additional week to my usual handling time.

Maybe it's just that my painting habits are not particularly suited for this method, or maybe I just need to get used to new ways of doing things. Overall, except at the very beginning stage, I don't paint in thin layers. In fact, while I don't lay it on with a palette knife, I do paint passages that are relatively thick and juicy. But oddly, I experience the most difficulty in the lay-in, (early stage) which I am used to having set up rather quickly.

First of all, in order to follow the "fat over lean" rule, I have been trying not to make the paint too "fat", too soon. So I keep the walnut oil I use in my initial lay-in stage very spare. The result is that instead of a thinly painted initial sketch and color block-in, I find myself with trying to move paint around that has a definite drag and is less fluid. The lay-in becomes more often a "rub-in" with a rag or a "scrub-in" with an old brush, and the edits and corrections are very hard to lift off the canvas.

On the other hand, if I use more walnut oil at this stage, the paint can get too smeary and unmanageable for successive layers, not to mention less stable (with any medium you use, you should only use no more than 20% total volume when mixed directly into the paint, and I usually err on the side of caution and use rather less than that.)

One solution may be to use a runnier paint in the lay-in stage. M. Graham walnut oil paints are such a paint. I do have a few tubes on hand, as I've tried them in the past. As much as I wanted to like them, I normally prefer more body to my paints. But they might just work for my purposes now--but still probably just in the initial stage only. (Incidentally, it's perfectly okay to mix walnut oil with linseed oil based paint, so even if you want to paint solvent-free, you do not need to buy their paints exclusively.)

Aside from walnut oil to thin,  there are other oils to try. Linseed oil is commonly used by artists, both in mixtures of ground paint and in various mediums. And while both linseed and walnut oils are considered to be "drying oils", linseed tends to be the faster-drying of the two.  However, I seem to read a lot about how linseed oil tends to yellow over time. Maybe this is an exaggerated worry, but a quick look at experiments like this one swayed me to first try the walnut oil over linseed.

So, to sum up from this layperson's perspective, some of the pros of using walnut oil to thin/clean are:

  • Non-yellowing
  • Non-toxic/ solvent-free painting (though other oils can also serve to achieve the same thing.)
  • Odorless
  • Does not evaporate like solvents, so it seems fairly long-lasting
  • Conditions brushes nicely


  • Walnut oil is expensive! (If you are only using oil to clean your brushes, you could probably get by with a less expensive oil.)
  • Slows drying considerably (this could actually be a "pro", depending on your painting technique.)
  • Compared to solvent, it requires using more brushes and/or more wiping of brushes between colors in order to keep the color clean.
  • Walnut oil is expensive!

A WIP and oil painting without solvents

After a couple of wipers, I finally have at least a work-in-progress to post. I've continued with the Bellagio theme, this time with an ariel view. I guess I'd call this a color block-in:

bellagio painting work in progress

Why the wipers? Well, I've been oil painting without solvents, and it's taking some practice to get the hang of things. Now as a fairly long-time an oil painter, I'm quite used to being around solvents. I do try to be conscientious of the risks and precautions, so I minimize odor (through ventilation and the use of a high quality OMS) and contact (wearing nitrile gloves) when handling my paints. But otherwise I admit I haven't thought too much about what potential hazards might be involved.

I guess I've been fortunate, in that I haven't experienced some of the allergies that other artists have suffered. But allergies or not, now that I am in the midst of  pregnancy, taking the utmost care in the studio has taken on a new significance. So I decided to do a little investigating....

* Warning, this post is rather's the first in a series of postings about what I've learned on alternatives to my usual oil painting method, presented in my usual rather rambling way. It's certainly not the definitive source on the topic, but may hopefully provide some insight or a jumping off point for other painters who may be wondering about some of this stuff.


When considering alternatives to my usual method of painting, I first took a look at the  pigments I was using, simply because they are essentially the same substance found in oils, watercolors, acrylics, casein, etc.  Pigments are the ground powder, either natural or synthetic, that comprises the "colored part" of the paint.

From what I can gather, due to the risk of inhalation, pigments seem to be most hazardous when in their ground, dry form. Some folks using manufactured paints from the tube are rather indifferent in their attitude about pigments in paints, saying, "Well, as long as you don't snort or eat your paints you'll be fine."  Nevertheless, some pigments do contain toxins and heavy metals, which could potentially be ingested or absorbed through the skin on surface contact. So for this reason it's always a good idea to wear gloves when handling them, and avoid eating, smoking, etc., around them, at least not without thoroughly scrubbing with soap before hand.

I put the question of hazards in manufactured artist oils to the maker of the oil paints I use most frequently- Winsor Newton. The technician, Amy Faris, was extremely helpful and very quickly responsive to my queries. Here's an excerpt of some of what she wrote about pigments:

"Depending on the color, our oil paints contain either linseed oil or safflower oil, with the possible addition of a drier, again depending on the color.  Other than than, I am unable to give you any specific recipes regarding the oils, because that information falls under the category of proprietary, and they won't even share it with me." (*Jen's note: this last sentence is one I heard over and over from the manufacturers of artist's materials that I queried directly.)"

"What I can tell you is that all of our products are tested and labeled for health and safety by an independent toxicologist at the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI).  An AP label - or a non-toxic label signifies that the toxicologist has not found anything in the product that can cause you harm, as long as you are using the product in the manner for which it was created - in other words, you are not eating it, applying it to your friend's body, etc.  A CL warning label signifies that the toxicologist has found something in the product that can potentially cause harm.  This CL label is usually followed by a statement on how to use the product safely."

"All health labeling can be found right on the back of every tube of paint we manufacture and on every container of medium, solvent etc.  If you would like more information on the toxicologist or on health and safety in general, please visit the ACMI website at:"

"In terms of pigments:  some mineral or metallic based pigments can be hazardous to your health if they build up in your system over time. Lead, cadmium,cobalt  and chromium are some problematic pigments that spring to mind. Generally, the biggest hazard comes in to play if you are working with these pigments in their dry, powder form and are breathing the pigment dust into your lungs.  In terms of the pigment while it is contained in a vehicle (contained in the paint form we are all used to working with) as long as you are not spraying the paint (cadmiums breathed into the lungs prove to be cancer-causing), or ingesting it in large quantities over time ( I sometimes joke about eating it, but if you point your brush in your mouth or eat or drink in the studio with paint covered hands you run the risk of ingesting the paint)  you should be okay.  Paint that contains lead (usually whites such as flake or cremnitz white)  needs to be handled with great care - the lead can be carried through your skin layer if the paint has been diluted with a thinner - you never want to clean your brushes by rubbing them in the palm of your hand - doing so can drive pigments directly into your skin.  Cobalt can be a skin irritant to some people."

...And the vehicles?

So basically, since I don't grind my own paints, I can take care in handling and just make note of the labels (and manufacturers that use such labeling) to make my choice of paint. But what about the vehicles used to suspend the pigment in the paints and give them their characteristics? In many cases it is nothing more than a seed or nut oil (linseed oil, walnut, poppy, etc.) But in other cases, there are other additives, and they seem to be both more mysterious and potentially more hazardous to me (and my unborn baby) since they can be inhaled as they float about in the air. Paint manufacturers are, as I said, pretty hush-hush about the specific additives used in their formulas.  As artists, even with the labeling, it's often difficult to impossible to derive specific information on which elements beyond the pigments in the paint are potentially toxic. But through a very cursory look around the web, I learned that  some of the potential additives to common artist paints (oils, acrylics, etc.) could be various solvents and resins that are volatile organic compounds (toxic inhalants), formaldehyde, preservatives, and mercury. Yikes!

And contrary to popular belief, in terms of tubes of paint, it doesn't seem to me that oil paints are necessarily any more toxic than say, acrylics. In fact, while acrylics clean up with water, many acrylics use vehicles that contain ammonia and formaldehyde that off-gas as they dry.

So, being at best a dabbler in watercolors, not having enjoyed my past experience with water soluble oils, and seeing no compelling reason to jump over to acrylics, it looked like oil painting without solvents was still worth pursuing for me. It would require some changes in my work habits, but if I could use precautions and avoid both the use of solvents to clean my brushes, as well as solvents, driers, and other potentially noxious fumes that come from various painting mediums , it could be done.

And that has been my aim. The W.I.P. pictured above, as well as and the one from my prior post were both done without the use of solvents. I'm using my usual paint brands--just using walnut oil instead of OMS to clean my brushes and a very tiny bit to thin my paint if needed. But it's slow going. This old dog is still having some trouble with her new tricks, and it's taking some getting used to. I'll write more about those challenges in a future post.

French market painting #2

Here is something of a companion piece to the other Cahors market painting I posted a couple of days ago:

French market oil painting by Jennifer Young

"Legumes du Jour" Oil on Linen, 20x16"


For both this painting and the previous market painting I have again experimented with a single primary palette of just 3 colors (red, yellow, and blue) plus white. I don't normally use a huge palette any way, but sometimes I feel I can become over-reliant on certain colors. Using a very limited palette helps me to feel as if I am taking back in control of my color mixing and really forces me to think more about color relationships. It also pretty much ensures more unified color. My three primaries for these two paintings were cadmium yellow pale, cadmium red medium, and ultramarine blue, and the white was titanium.

"The Brook"- A plein air adventure in Bryan Park

Last week I took another early morning stab at painting in Bryan Park. Since I had already done a couple of plein air paintings at the park of Young's Pond, (which you can see here and here) I decided this time to tackle the shady brook that feeds it:

plein air painting of a brook by Jennifer E. Young

"The Brook" Oil on birch panel, 12x9" Contact me for purchasing info!

Even though everything seemed to be lining up for me when I launched into this painting, I did have a couple of unanticipated challenges. At the time I was dealing with "umbrella issues", so after hassling with it for about 10 minutes to no avail, I gave up and just tried to position myself so that my painting and palette would be shaded from the sun. Sometimes it's hard to anticipate this, but I keep a compass handy for that reason, and I figured I would have at least an hour before the sun would overtake me.

But then there was "Billy" (not his real name.) Let me preface by saying that Billy was an incredibly kind and gentle soul, and exceedingly complimentary. But Billy liked to chat. A lot. And ask lots of questions. I love meeting people, and I am always blown away by how lovely people are when I'm out painting, complimenting my work as they stop briefly to take a look. But I find it pretty much impossible to chat for extended periods and stay "in the zone" when I am painting.

At the same time,  I have yet to figure out how to express this to someone without feeling like I am being a big jerk. My husband's advice is matter-of-fact- "Tell them you are W-O-R-K-I-N-G." This seems so simple and rational until I am in a real life situation. I guess I just hate to be rude, and it feels so ungracious when someone is being so genuinely enthusiastic. But really, Dave's right. This is my work, and it's up to me to respect it and value my time, regardless of whether any one else thinks to do so.

As it was, I was a total wimp and did not tell him anything close to that--at most, merely *hinting* that, "Well, ahem! I'd better get to this thing and focus, ha-ha!" (which apparently was a bit too subtle for dear Bill). The end result was that it took me far longer than I wanted to take, and all too quickly I lost my beautiful shade.

When I got back to the studio, I had the inevitible but still unpleasant surprise of seeing a resulting painting far darker than I thought it was when I was on site, due to the sun's glare (what I call "retina burn"). I did about 20 minutes of rework from memory to lighten it up in places, and I think I've still managed to maintain the feeling of the light and the place.

The odd thing is that even though I seem more often than not to have to deal with the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of painting on location, there is still something about it that leaves some part of me feeling exhilarated. There's a clarity to it; a feeling of losing myself and being in fully the moment, even alongside the sunburn and bugs and chatterboxes. So I'll return. And hopefully next time I do so it will be with a working umbrella AND a backbone!  ;-)

More alla prima portraits

Following up on my previous post about the Rob Liberace's portrait workshop, I thought I'd start this entry by posting my painting from day 2 of the class. This was a very different model from the one who sat for us on the first day:

alla prima portrait study by Jennifer Young

Portrait study- "The Captain", Oil, 20x16"

I heard quite a few people calling this gentleman the Captain, but I'm not sure if they were doing so because he actually was a captain, or just looked like one! In any event, he was a riot and really seemed to get a kick out of sitting for us. He was an excellent model, able to stay still for an extraordinary amount of time (which he attributed to the fact that he was a long-time turkey hunter.)

I got a little further along with this portrait than I had done on the first day, though I think I had a bit of a handicap to overcome. I had toned this canvas rather too dark. Prior to the class we were sent instructions to tone our canvases in acrylic to a middle value gray. I'm ususally pretty good with my value judgements, but I'd not used acrylics in a long time and they seemed to dry darker than I had expected them to.

This ground had me feeling like I had to do a good deal of extra work to get rid of it so that I could acheive the fair complexion and hair of this gentleman. Normally the middle value gray would be a nice gauge  for judging mid tones, but with this model's coloration especially, the darker than mid gray tone was just not helpful.

This next portrait below was actually not done in the workshop, but comes from a session last week after I returned back home. I met up with a local portrait group that meets weekly here in Richmond. I have actually wanted to meet up with this group for quite a while but for some reason the mid-week evening sessions have not jived with my schedule. Any way, this is Joey:

alla prima portrait study by Jennifer Young

"Joey" (portrait study), 16x12, oil on linen

Since I knew we'd only have this model for a 3 hour segment of time, I thought I'd make it a little easier on myself by choosing a smaller canvas (toned in a light wash of burnt umber, on the spot). As it turned out, I didn't get much farther with my level of finish; which is too bad because Joey had on a great oversized black leather jacket and was holding a guitar.

Nevertheless, I think this is my favorite alla prima portrait so far, as I was very happy with the likeness I was able to acheive. I went about it in the same manner as the two previous studies, using same palette as I'd used in the portrait workshop. But this one just seemed to "click" a little better. Even though that electric blue could use some toning down around his jawline, I like what's happening with the color sense and the brushwork.

I'm missing the portrait group's meeting this week because I'm going to the Shins concert (woo hoo!) but I intend to keep up with them on as regular a basis as I am able. Whether or not I ever "do anything" formally with portraiture, I've made it my goal because I'm convinced that the challenge of working from the live model will improve my abilities to render and to see light and color more accurately overall.

Alla prima portrait study

In my previous post I mentioned an out of town trip last weekend. I was over in Colonial Beach VA pursuing one of my main 2009 goals (exploring the figure) by taking another class with painter/portrait artist Robert Liberace. This class was a 2 day workshop on alla prima portrait painting. Since this is the way I am accustomed to painting with my landscapes (particularly smaller works and those done en plein air) I was really drawn to the class. Rob is as enthusiastic and energetic as I remember him to be from my first class with him in figure drawing last semester at the Art League School. I am continually enthralled by his masterful demos, and I found it interesting that the process he set forth for this style of portraiture was very similar to the method I use to paint my landscapes.

The palette we used, however, was quite a bit different and more expansive than what I typically use for my landscapes; burnt umber, cad yellow light, followed by several reds, several blues, two violets and a couple of greens. He also used two different kinds of white, Titanium (a very strong, bright white) and Lead White (the most opaque of the whites.)

Rob began with an imprimatura (toning) in burnt umber on Ampersand panel, and a very quick and sketchy (though amazingly accurate) grisaile. From there he then built his way to layers of color from shadow to midtone, halftone and finally highlights. Of course he made it look so easy, but I soon found out otherwise!

The model I painted on this first day was a very stunning young lady who looked to be about 15 or 16. Turns out she was actually only 12. I think for her age and energy level she did exceedly well sitting for us, and it was a real visual treat to paint her. By the luck of the draw, I found myself setting up in a spot that put the model in complete profile. I'm not normally overly excited with profile views. In fact I find them boring. But the model had a great hairdo and a nice twist to her torso that actually enlivened my view and made it fun to paint:

portrait study by Jennifer Young

She was wearing a great red satin dress in the Asian style, which went well with her beautiful golden skintone and almond shaped eyes. Unfortunately in the remaining time we had left to work (after Rob's excellent demo) I got none of the dress, save for a brief outline. I did take a photo of her though, in case I decide to work more on the painting. But most times I leave my workshop studies as is, to serve as a reminder of what I learned and in what areas I still need to grow.

In any case, I  learned a lot from this first sitting. First of all, just as in plein air painting, it's important to get your drawing down accurately and commit to your big idea as soon as possible. While the lighting in a portrait studio doesn't change the way the natural light does en plein air, what does change incrementally is the model. It's really hard for a model to get the exact same pose and facial expression after a break. And it's also really hard to hold a pose for any length of time (especially if you happen to be 12 years old!) So while it's tempting to jump right in to color, Rob wanted us to spend a good deal of time first developing a strong grisaille and really fleshing out the portrait in it's proper porportion, placement, light, shadow, and halftone-- BEFORE putting down the first dab of color.

Another very important thing I learned once I moved beyond the grisaille had to do with painting children. As in landscape painting, it is oh so very easy to overdo it by getting lost in details. It's an interesting dance; because while you want to accurately record what you see, too much unnecessary detail can detract from the character of the subject and weaken the overall painting. At about an hour into my painting I was well into color, painting in every shadow I could possibly see on the model's face. I knew the likeness in her profile was pretty accurate, but still  I wasn't getting her character--her "glow".

Then Rob came by and said, "You're aging her." Taking my brush, with literally two sweeping strokes he pulled some of the middle skintone I had put down on her upper cheek and quickly swept it downward, blending away almost all of the shadow work I'd done around her mouth and nose, leaving only part of the cheekbone shadow and the shadow work I'd done under her jaw. I just stood there and chuckled. It was like one of those "miracle line eraser" wrinkle ads you see on the Internet.

"You just took 10 years off of her, " I said. Ah, if only it were that easy in real life!

p.s. The above 20x16" study was after about 2 to 2 1/2 hrs. of work. The sketch in the upper right corner of the canvas was a hands-on instructive from Rob early on, because the initial lines of my grisaille around the eyes were too juicy and lacked definition.

Southern France painting demo continues

This post continues a demo I started last week. To start from the beginning, click here!

Before going too much further I like to get a good feel for my area of interest, so I lay in the general colors and highlights of the wall of the Abbey ruins. I've worked wet into wet to blend the purple shadow colors with the warm local colors of the Abbey wall, which gives me a nice mixture of golds, browns and muted violets.

Landscape painting demo by Jennifer Young

At this point I am ready to dig in to the rest of the landscape and get that canvas covered. To keep the flow going, I try not to be "stingy with my paint". For this painting I'm using a somewhat more expanded palette than I do when I paint on location.

oil painting demo by Jennifer Young

I  want to have large enough puddles of the colors I see so that I don't have stop every five seconds to mix up more paint. This process is pretty organic so it's difficult to give a step by step process of mixing colors. In addition to blending paint wet-into-wet on the canvas, I also tend to dip into various larger puddles to make new blends as I go along. The most important thing during this process is just to compare one color, one value to the others, constantly asking myself, "Darker or lighter? Warmer or Cooler?"

french landscape painting demonstration by Jennifer Young

I also decide to indicate the basic iris colors so that I know where I'm at. I have to be careful here--even the middle value of the purple/blue flowers has a lot of white in it, so I really don't want to paint these too thickly or it will be hard to control the darks, making them muddy and less pure. A lot of these preliminary iris lay-ins will need to be restated, and, of course defined, but I felt like I wanted some indication of them in there at this point so I wouldn't get lost (if that makes any sense!)

painting demonstration by Jennifer Young

Here you can see that I've continued on working my way down the canvas so that eventually everything is pretty well laid in. I've held off putting down much of my strongest highlights. That will be among my next steps, along with further refining, defining, tweaking, and adjusting.

paintings of France by Jennifer Young

Up to this point I have used just a few brushes. Aside from the one round I used for the linear drawing of my composition in the earliest stages, I've used my larger flats and filberts. Being the very messy painter that I am, I can't tell you the size numbers of any of these, as there is old smeared paint on all of my handles, completely obscuring any info that once was printed on them! I think probably the smallest in use is around an 8 or 10(flat) but the ones I used the most were the largest filberts I have, with widths ranging from 1 and 1/4" to 1 and 3/4". I love these large filberts, as you get a nice thin edge at the tip and a broad flat side too, making them very versatile for my purposes. I could even stand to go to a larger size brush for this size painting, but I need to conserve my expenses so I'm trying to use what I have on hand right now. Even so, if I use the broad side of the brushes I can get a pretty broad and loose stroke and avoid getting too fussy with too many details too early!

landscape oil painting demonstration by Jennifer Young

To be continued...

Back from the ethers with a new WIP/painting demo

My lapse in posting has probably made it seem like I fell off the face of the Earth or something. In fact, I was in Texas last week (which actually did feel a bit like another world to me --just kidding Texans!) I had to slip away unexpectedly to assist my mom, who was just released from the hospital after major surgery. The good news is that she's been doing great, and I'm back home now and back to painting. It's been far too windy and rainy this week to do any plein air work, so I've decided to continue my French landscape series with nice big 40x30" linen canvas in the studio--a vertical painting of an ancient church in ruins among a field of irises.

I started with a monochromatic tonal wash in transparent red oxide:

France painting demo work in progress

While this is a representational painting, my approach to the work is in the abstract. My aim at this stage is to express the pattern of lights and darks in a fluid and interesting manner. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you might remember a plein air painting I did of this same site last summer. Even though this larger painting will be of a different view from that location, I will use my plein air painting and my experience from that work to inform this piece.

The finished painting will have a lot of irises in the foreground, but I don't bother drawing them in at this point. My main concern early on is to connect my darks in such a way as to create an interesting underlying armature that will provide a structure for any detail, and also hopefully provide enough interest so as to lead the eye around the canvas.

Painting in this monochromatic, thin wash helps me to develop my overall composition without great commitment. Transparent red oxide is not a highly staining color, so if corrections or changes are desired, any marks I make at this stage can easily be wiped away with a paper towel dipped in solvent (I use Gamsol).

Incidental staining is not really a concern any way, since I usually like a toned canvas. It's sort of like I'm making a grisaille painting and toning my canvas at once. In this instance, I decide to leave the lightest lights (in the sky) mostly completely white, as I will next use the white of the canvas to develop the shape of my clouds:

landscape painting demo of the french countryside

Basically I'm painting the negative space of the sky with the blue paint mixture. Working on linen is a real pleasure. It makes it really easy to use my paper towels to smudge and wipe away paint so as to refine shapes and create those soft, wispy edges.

southern france landscape painting work in progress by jennifer young

After I established the basic cloud pattern, I start to add paint, color and shadow to the white of the clouds. I also begin to develop my darks, and give some definition to my area of interest; the ruins of the old abbey.

Further developments are under way and forthcoming soon....Stay tuned!

French country garden painting WIP, cont'd

Now that my gardens are right outside my studio doors, I'm finding it far too easy to get distracted with gardening instead of painting--especially now that spring is here. I did do some more work on the painting of the garden passage in St. Cirq Lapopie started earlier in the week though, so I thought I'd continue to post the progression. It's almost there, but I will probably do a bit more work on it before it's all said and done:

France garden landscape oil painting

I've learned something from the last few oils I've done and I'll share it in case it may be of help to other painters. As odd as it seems, I am finding it is actually easier to manipulate the paint and have better effects with my edges if I use a lot more of it. I've never considered myself to be terribly stingy with paint to begin with, (and it may not be all that obvious in this picture,) but lately I've been laying it on pretty thickly and it's like, "Wow, that makes things so much easier!"

When I've taught workshops, I've definitely noticed a certain "stinginess" in beginning painters, both in terms of the amount of the paint colors they'll mix up on their palette, and in the application of the paint onto the canvas. This usually stems from just being uncertain, tentative, and maybe even a little intimidated. But what I try to get across is that in alla prima painting, they are actually creating a lot more work for themselves by mixing up flat little puddles of paint and using skinny, dabby little strokes.

There is a caveat, though (isn't there always when it comes to any kind of painting "rules"?) It helps to have a certain amount of confidence in your drawing and compositional skills if you're going to lay it on thickly (and in fact, this may be part of what's going on with beginners who are feeling tentative and intimidated). Otherwise when painting thickly, you may find yourself needing to do more scraping to make significant changes.

But over all for the kind of direct painting I'm doing, using a lot more paint is helping me to actually have better control AND keep it looser at the same time (if that makes any sense.) Manipulating thicker paint to soften edges and refine shapes does require a light touch though. You aren't moving it around to such an extent that you're smearing it or picking up too much of the underneath and surrounding paint layers. If you do that, there's a danger of having a mud-fest on your hands.

On painting that ever changing light

This post is inspired by a comment Molly left for me yesterday on the challenge of painting sunsets en plein air. As I've noted before, this golden hour of the day is my favorite time to be out painting-- but it's also one of the most challenging because the light changes incredibly fast. Since I've made my share of stinkers (and had a few successes too) I thought I'd offer a few tips from what I've observed along the way.

  • At first, try keeping it small! This will ensure that you can cover the entire canvas within the time limitations you have.
  • Broadly tackle first the overall light and shadow pattern and don't give into the temptation to lose yourself in details in the early stages.
  • For as long as you can, try thinking in terms of light and dark, shapes and patterns instead of objects and things.
  • Simplify.
  • Squint.
  • Develop what you know is going to change the fastest.  In the recent harbor paintings I did in Annapolis, those clouds were such an important element in the paintings and I knew they'd change quickly as the sun was breaking through them across the sky. So I set about developing the sky and clouds first, even though I'd merely blocked in the dark shape of the boats.
  • Make a commitment. Try not to change your entire painting with each change of the sky (or light). This will drive you crazy and it will quickly start to cause  your painting to look confused. At some point you have to decide on the statement you want to make with your painting and commit to it. Learn to develop those memory muscles so that when the light changes you can recall the moment you were trying to capture. This is why blocking in the overall light and shadow pattern is so very important at the beginning.
  • At the same time (and this is going to sound like a contradiction to the previous statement,) if you want to capture that elusive golden moment, you almost have to try and anticipate what's going to happen next and be ready for it. The best way to do this is to observe, observe, observe. Paint at different times of the day often enough and you will really begin to notice and observe what happens to the quality of the light. I find myself doing this mentally now, even when I'm not painting.
  • Color is seductive, and it's understandable to want to change and tweak it as the sky gets more and more beautiful with that rosy/golden evening glow.  Sometimes it is necessary to add that flourish of color at just the right moment  in your process to get the feeling you want. If you feel you really must change the color, I'd first try changing the color without changing the value.  It's not as simple as it sounds. Those sunset colors can be pretty intense. Too much white will kill the intensity. Too much change can shift the value (and/or color temperature) to the point that it throws off your whole design. It really is a dance.
  • Don't be stingy with your paint. Many don't put enough paint out on their palette, and/or mix smaller piles of color than they'll really need. While I usually keep my shadow areas relatively thin, I can really load it on in the highlight areas.
  • Be grateful for the stinkers. (I am still working on this one.) Nowadays, while I still indulge in a brief tantrum, I am more and more appreciating the duds, and how well they teach me. Each one gives fuel to the fire and helps to inform a future masterpiece :-)
  • Time is of the essence, but remember, this is a process of both measured intent and spontaneous response. These two approaches may seem to be at odds, but really they can work in tandem. For me, they are easiest to apply if I can relax, have fun, and enjoy the moment.

Annapolis Day 2- A fine morning with guidance from Gruppe

Had a few technical difficulties to overcome before I could post again, but I'm picking up where I last left off writing about the Annapolis paint out. Day two of the paint-out started off great, mainly because I had been able to do a little planning the day before. Painting in an unfamiliar place can always be a little overwhelming. It takes a little bit of time to get your bearings and find locations that appeal to you. This task can also be a little more daunting if you are also painting unfamiliar subject matter. (In my case, not living near a harbor or having much boating experience,  that subject matter would be the preponderance of boats.) To tackle the first obstacle, I spent some time on the first day (in between my morning and afternoon paintings) just wandering around scouting out possible painting locations along the many small harbors. One thing to consider is the path the sun will take across the sky throughout the day from sunrise to sunset. Having already done one morning painting the first day, I began to get a feel for which locations would make good morning setups and which would work better for me in the evenings. (I will also sometimes carry a compass with me to accomplish this task.)  As a result, I found a location in Eastport that I knew would be perfect for an early morning sunrise scene. And in contrast to the first morning when I got started late, I was able to arrive early on day 2 and start painting between 7 and 7:30 a.m.

As for the second obstacle.... the first thing I had to do was to recognize that no matter what I am painting, all I really need to do is paint shapes and the play of light on forms. If you can accurately see what is in front of you as abstract shapes and light patterns (and get a good grasp especially on painting the shapes of the negative space between the forms as well,) form naturally happens.  Having said that, the mind plays tricks on the untrained eye--even sometimes on the eye that has had a bit of training. Boats (like trees and the human face) are some of the things that the mind has long tended to see as symbols. They're some of the things that so many of us drew when we were kids --a sort of half-circle topped with two triangles. So one can easily fall into the trap of painting a symbol of a boat (or a tree or a face) instead of painting the actual shape.

While intellectually I know that all of the above is true, for my own peace of mind, I found it also helpful to consult one of my favorite art books of all time by Emile A. Gruppe. Gruppe was a fine New England painter of landscapes, townscapes and most notably to me, marinescapes . He was active in the 30's on up until the 70's and received training at the Art Students League in New York, and from famed American landscape painters Charles Hawthorne and John F. Carlson. Gruppe was also a wonderful teacher in his own right, both through the school that he established, and through his series of books on painting ("Brushwork," "Gruppe on Color" and "Gruppe on Painting; Direct Techniques in Oil" ).   

All three of these books are fabulous. They are also out of print, making the ones that are still available quite pricey and difficult to acquire. I haven't written much about these books before because there is just sooo much I would want to to say. I can't give proper honor to each of them now without making this post even longer than it already is, but suffice it to say that despite the cost and the regardless of sad quality of the painting reproductions within, they are three incredibly worthwhile and inspiring (if not essential) additions to any landscape painter's library.

For my money, Gruppe was a master of brushwork and composition. Living in New England, he was also a frequent painter of harbors and coastal scenes, which made his book, "Gruppe on Painting; Direct Techniques in Oil," a perfect traveling companion on my trip to Annapolis. I'm glad I grabbed it as I was walking out the door, especially since this particular book has a whole section on painting harbor scenes.  This is not a book of formulas, but rather a thoughtful book with a wealth of things to consider. For instance, here is an excerpt on drawing boats:

"...students have  preconceptions about what a boat should look like. They think of boats they drew as children, boats that were shaped like wooden shoes or bananas, curling up at the bow and stern. And that's how they draw them. But probably no shape could be less like that of a real ocean-going dragger; all those concave lines suggest weakness while the character of the dragger is strong and tough......Remember that the gunwhale of the boat is straight as it nears the bow--it doesn't sweep up like a gondola! And the bow goes into the water in a fairly straight line--it doesn't cut under sharply. Use strong lines to suggest a strong subject."

Just that one snippet helped me immensely, and yet there is so much more in this section alone; on cast shadows, masts, rigging, refraction, smaller boats, and docks and wharves. The conversational tone and the passion in Gruppe's writing helped me to internalize his teachings and carry them with me as I addressed the subjects and painted them from life. Here, finally, is the painting that resulted. I may need to touch it up when I return to the studio, but I was pretty happy about it overall:

coastal marine plein air painting annapolis 

Daybreak in Annapolis Oil on Multimedia Artboard, 11x14" SOLD

On this second day of painting, I was happy to meet more of the artist members of the MAPAPA, so I felt a little more connected and a little less lost. In fact, as I was finishing up the above piece, an artist came up to me with a rather dazed and confused look. She said it was her first day at the paint-out, and she'd been driving around for an hour trying to decide what to paint. I had to chuckle (not at her, but with her.) Been there, done that!

Wild Roses (France); and thoughts on painting loose

As mentioned in my previous post, here's a new painting about to come off the easel. Maybe a touch or two yet to go, but mostly it's done. Photographing this painting was a bit of a challenge today due to a lack of good light. It's a pretty decent shot, though I may try a reshoot once the sun comes out:

French landscape painting of the Lot Valley by Jennifer Young "Wild Roses" Oil on Linen, 20x16" Click here for more info.

This is another scene from one of those beautiful misty mornings in southern France that I've written of before.  Even though this was somewhat after the heavy fog had lifted, the moist air remained, and the diffused, cool light kept everything soft but saturated.

One thing I've been learning from my plein air paintings is that even the less successful pieces done on location have a certain freshness to them (if I don't allow myself to work them beyond the point that I should). There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that I am painting from life.

But I've also noticed that the brush size-to-canvas ratio is much larger due to the smaller plein air canvases. I don't use tiny brushes (unless I need to sign my name) so I'm really forced to simplify. And I must say, by the very nature of the way I have to approach the painting, I often end up saying more with less. 

I try to keep this in mind on days when I'm working on larger paintings in the studio, and to make a more conscious effort to retain that same kind of freshness and looseness. It's a different matter than plein air painting, but it's been helpful for me to consciously reach for the largest possible brushes to do the task at hand, and to *try* to state things as economically as possible rather than overworking.

It's not an overstatement to say that sometimes my greatest motivations are my limitations. And  in the field, time is a built-in task-master due to the ever-changing light. But in my studio, unless my schedule is crammed full of other chores (as it is soon about to become!) there usually isn't that same kind of urgency. Without that, it can really be tempting to noodle around endlessly.

In my studio work, along with relying a lot more on memory, my challenge is to supply my own urgency, and to work more quickly and loosely. All this and still have command of the paint. There's the rub. After all, loose and quick is pretty pointless if the drawing or composition is weak or if the values aren't right.

It's a lot to consider if you think about it, but it is a fun challenge for me, and hopefully in time I can continue to work even more effectively in this manner on larger canvases still.

Plein air painting tip- protecting your hands.

I'm heading out this morning to do a little plein air painting, so for now I'll post a plein air painting tip. This was a question posed to me by a fellow artist from Texas. My answer follows: Hi Jennifer,

 Came upon your site from a demo you have at  I have a dumb question but  couldn't find  an answer on your site. You use a blue glove while  painting in some of  the photos. Could you give me the brand name and  do you use them in plein  air? Seems like the ones I am getting do not  last through a painting  session. -G.K. in Texas

Answer: Hi G.K. -

Your question isn't dumb at all. I still have a box of 200 white latex gloves collecting dust because they broke down so easily with oil paints and solvents. What I'm using now are called nitrile gloves.  They're thin and disposable, but hold up well to solvents.  I find if I'm not too messy I can reuse them for another session.

I get the blue ones you've seen in some of my photos at Lowe's or Home Depot in the painting section. I know for sure that Lowe's has them. You might try them out by getting a small pack locally, and then if you like them, you could probably find a better price online, especially if you buy larger quantities. (I also found a great deal on them at Costco, and they were gray, not blue. At Costco they're called "Nitrile Examination Gloves". I don't have large hands, but to be safe, I bought the medium size and I'm glad I did. They fit perfectly--not too tight, not too loose).

As for plein air painting, I use the gloves when I think to pack them! Sometimes though they can be a little much when it's 85-90+ degrees outside. In that case I just can't bear them, as they do make your hands "sweat" in the heat. But wear them if you can stand it. It's really not a good idea to expose your skin to daily paint and solvents.

Here's another idea I learned from fellow plein air painter Mary Pettis, who in turn learned it from painter Jim Wilcox. Dentist's bibs! If you can find them, that is. They have the paper towel properties on one side, and a plastic lining on the other side, so the solvents don't get through to your hands. I have yet to check out our local medical supply place, but intend to do so soon so I can give it a try. Apparently works great, and no sweaty hands en plein air!