Saturday, December 15, 2018

Plein Air Painting and Cast Shadows

The biggest difference between painting on location (en plein air) and painting in studio is the time management. Although some painters (like Monet) go back to the same location multiple times to finish one painting over days and weeks, most plein air painters spend about 3 hours to finish a painting. Within those 3-hour painters, a portion of them put in finishing touches in their studios. Many develop a larger studio painting based on the smaller plein air pieces, field notes, and their memories. I've made multiple-day plein air paintings, not by choice, when I was in class and ran out of time. But I prefer to finish the damn thing on location in one sitting and move on.

Painting en plein air in winter is especially tricky though, because within 3 hours, the direction of cast shadows shifts close to 60°. You have to decide when to switch from painting what you see to painting what you remember. To me the switch usually happens midway through the 3-hour session. If I don't make the switch, I end up making a painting like this:

Hanger on Desire Street
oil on canvas, 16"x22" (2013)

The cast shadows on the ground were painted early on, and the shadows of the two rooftop chimneys were put in near the end of the same 3-hour session - duh!
This will never happen in a studio, unless you're making a surreal painting that purposely messes with perception.

The painting below was done in about 3 hours in a strong wind, while shivering and saying hello to the passersby and security guards. I was also under at least 8 security cameras.

French Quarter Alleyway
(or Askew Light Post Named Wallace)
oil on panel, 8"x12" (2018)

The red and yellow buildings in the background stayed lit in the same way the whole time, but the brick buildings on the left went from dominantly-in-shades to completely-lit by sunlight. The top of the shadows cast by the tall buildings on the right side (off the frame) was at the third floor level of the buildings on the left when I started. But within 2 hours or so, the sun moved (or I should say the earth turned) to where the top of the same cast shadow was on the sidewalk. I decided that the top of the cast shadow should be in the middle of the light-green doorway, and lined everything up accordingly.

Now the question is, what made the top of the light post askew in real life while the rest of the post stayed straight?

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

View from Maurepas

Maurepas Foods closed in October of 2015, after 3 glorious years as the neighborhood restaurant with inexpensive & innovative Southern dishes that highlighted seasonal ingredients. Their staff was always nice and friendly, a rarity in most hip establishments in Bywater (or anywhere else in the U.S.), and the decor matched the food they served as well: tastefully new and authentic at the same time. It was one of our favorite places to eat.

When I made the plein air painting below, they weren't open yet. I remember seeing boarded windows and a sign saying 'Maurepas Foods coming soon' or things of that nature. There was (and still is) a wrap-around awning that creates a nice shade where you can set up an easel and look at this view across the street in morning sun.

Koffskey Building, oil on canvas, 18"x24"
(2010 or 11)

L.E. Koffskey building used to be a pharmacy, but its current owners/residents are a photographer and a musician. I've been inside once a while back, and it was really nice since they kept the original tiled floor and most of the display cases that looked almost antique. The two-story building to the right is a yoga studio at the bottom floor, and an apartment on the second floor. 

View from Maurepas, oil on panel, 10"x20"
(November 2018)

After Maurepas Foods closed, the building behind me (which you don't see in the paintings) stays empty. The two Japanese Maple trees by the Koffskey building have grown much taller since the last time I painted them. And on this crisp fall morning they were in red and gold.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

View from the Bomb Factory

Since the weather turned tolerable, I've started painting outdoors again, usually with Phil and Claude. This past month we painted in Bywater area of New Orleans, for the eclectic mix of blight, swank, and funk. I really enjoy just being in Bywater.

One day Phil texted us soliciting ideas for the next painting location. My first answer was Japonica and N. Robertson at the edge of the Upper 9th.

one of my favorite views in the city
The studio painting above is from 2014, and 24"x36" on canvas. The bridge is the Claiborne Bridge over the Industrial Canal.  Below is from this month.

View from the Bomb Factory
oil on muslin and Gatorfoam, 12"x8"
I've been experimenting with different painting surfaces again. When I paint with others I can hitch a ride, but when I'm alone the weight of the painting gear becomes a problem rather quickly even on a short bike ride. Instead of getting into better physical fitness, my solution has always been to look for the lightest painting gear.

Gatorfoam Board had been on my radar for a while because of its light weight and warp-resistant hard surface. It's basically a foam core board sandwiched with ultra thin wooden veneers, and they are used most commonly for indoor signage. The surface is water proof and a lot of watercolorists use them as a support for stretching watercolor paper. The foam core center, which is exposed on the sides, will deteriorate when oil paint or solvent touches it. Most oil painters would adhere gessoed linen onto the board using rabbit skin glue or PVA. But I hate canvases and I can't afford linen.

Muslin is used, among other things, for diffusing lights in film production, and we had a huge roll of it in the closet. It's thinner and has a much smoother surface than canvases, and it's perfect for the light weight painting surface. View from the Bomb Factory above was the second painting I made on muslin and Gatorfoam: I really liked painting on it.

It takes so much time and labor just to prepare the panels, and I'm not sure if I can continue justifying the time I'm NOT actually painting. There are pre-made panels for sale but they are so damn expensive because they use linen instead of muslin (and oil primed! highest quality!). And Gatorfoam alone ain't cheap either.

(The Bomb Factory, by the way, is across the street from this fenced area in the paintings, and they do magical restorations on classic cars and hot rods. Hi Rick!)

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ghost Ship v. Zorn Palette Redux

For the first time in 2-3 years (I can't remember exactly how long) I painted en plein air, and the first two didn't turn out too well. I'm blaming the small size of the panel surface instead of my technical inability to produce masterpieces(!) those two times.

The first painting was made in Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, LA, which is a 40 minute drive north from New Orleans, facing Lake Pontchartrain. It was pure nature with water, sky, white sand, and some tall grass on a 12"x16" panel. It's not a bad painting, but it's too colorful for my 'gloom and doom' style.

The second was done in Madisonville, LA, about 20 more minutes' drive west from Mandeville. Google Maps told me that there was a lighthouse near where Tchefuncte River meets Lake Pontchartrain. So I was going to see how close the lighthouse was to the shore, and if I could paint it.

Upon arriving at the south end of Main Street, across a large gravel area with a simple empty boat raunch and two brand-new but empty picnic areas, all I saw was this abandoned boat around the bend.

my new BFF

I found out later that the locals call it 'the Ghost Ship' but it is actually a tow boat 'Freedom' that sank there in the '90s, raised, sank again, then raised again. Someone wanted to turn this into a floating bed and breakfast at some point. (check out the posts near the bottom of the thread on for more info)

The biggest mistake I made was not bringing a big enough canvas to paint this view. My 12"x12" panel didn't do justice (yes I'm blaming the panel, not my skills) and I promised the boat that I shall return.

"It's all about the stance." - photo by Aaron R.
Totally ignoring the lighthouse behind me

The return match a week later started out sketchy. The morning fog was so thick that I was afraid the boat won't be visible at all. As soon as we (me and my poor husband who had to drive me around hundreds of miles) came around the bend, it became clear that the stage had already been set. Perfectly. I couldn't have asked for a better painting subject.

Turn that smoke machine up to 11, Jimmy!
photo by Aaron R.

There was no clear division between the sky and the lake, and the fog enveloped the boat like a smoke machine in some David Lynch movie. But the real fog tends to lift pretty quickly.

Zorn Palette to the rescue! The modified version I used was made up of Winsor Red Deep, Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black, Titanium White, Transparent White (Gamblin's 1980 series), and a tiny amount of Ultramarine Blue.

This 18"x36" painting of the Ghost Ship is the largest that I've done en plein air, and I actually find it easier to paint larger. I used to paint on small panels on location mainly because I can't transport wet paintings larger than 12"x16" with my current bike setup. Even when you hitch a ride with another painter, there is just no room for large canvases with two sets of painting gears taking up room.

I have to come up with a new bicycle setup that would allow me to carry large wet canvases, and wait for a bike lane to magically appear on the 23-mile long Causeway Bridge. How did van Gogh carry his wet canvas on his back?

Anyway, our return match was cut short because of an approaching ginormous rain storm (typical!). About an hour into painting the fog lifted completely, then my husband with a radar app stood next to me counting down how many minutes I had left before the storm came ("you have about 15 minutes... 10 minutes... pack up NOW!!"). There was less than 5 minutes to paint the reflection - maybe it ended up better that way.

Freedom (a.k.a. The Ghost Ship)
oil on canvas, 18"x36"
I always thought that limitations force you to be creative. Add some sense of urgency, and you do things you haven't done before.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Brayer painting with water-soluble oil paint

This is what I've been doing the past year and a half -- painting with brayers instead of brushes, using Cobra water-soluble oil paint and Gamblin Solvent-Free Gel and Fluid. It's usually a two-sitting process, first for developing under-painting, and second sitting (about a week later) for layering glazes. I also use squeegees, silicon scrapers, Q-tips, fingers, and paper towels to scrape and wipe paint off to show the white of the panel surface for lighter areas of a composition.

I recently tried using Weber Res-N-Gel instead of Gamblin's Solvent-Free Gel and Fluid for the same process. Since RNG contains modified resin that doesn't give me headaches or sore throat, it works well for small spaces. But! It has a really slippery feeling when applying with brayers: brayers slide on the panel surface instead of rolling. I know it's really a specific problem for me just because I paint with brayers, but it's a huge enough issue that I'm sticking with Solvent-Free Gel and Fluid!

Transparent Oxide Red/Yellow under-painting

Ultramarine Blue glaze layer
(before wiping and scraping light areas)

oil on panel, 24"x18"

There are about 6 soft brayers in different widths in my rotation. Squeegee is about 12" wide. It is amazing what these simple but versatile tools can do, and how easy it is to obtain soft edges and transparency. Cleaning is fun with just soap and water. Yay!