Little moments captured in paint

What a fabulous time of year to be painting in Cumbria, the colours this autumn have been particularly striking and I spent a lovely few days teaching on location from Higham Hall last week. Thanks so much to Anne Kemlo for taking the lovely photos I'm using in this post. 

Autumn on Derwent Water

As part of the course I gave a painting demonstration on the shore of Derwent Water, with ever changing light and occasional squally wind it was a scene fraught with classic plein air challenges!

 A chilly but beautiful autumn afternoon for painting

A chilly but beautiful autumn afternoon for painting

I began by selecting a view across the water with some distant hills for depth and some foreground foliage for colour. Using a viewfinder I made a couple of tonal plans (notans) to decide the arrangement of light and dark shapes. As I was doing this the sun came out and shone down the valley, breaking the grey mass of the fells with diffuse light in the distance. This gave me a lovely light 'V' shape in the composition. This is the way I like to paint - to find an overall idea, a 'roadmap' for the painting (in this case the overlapping layers of the trees and hills) and then to play with the incidental light and colour changes of the day, allowing them to influence your decisions as the painting progresses, but never straying too far from the original idea, the roadmap.

 Left: first plan with solid grey hills behind  Right: Second plan with light 'V' shape 

Left: first plan with solid grey hills behind  Right: Second plan with light 'V' shape 

After making initial design decisions it was time to get some paint mixed up, paying particular attention to tonal values, I spent time matching the key colours from the scene and then placed spots of them on the painting to see how they looked together- did they sing with the same harmony as the real colours? Once content with the palette, the next step was to sketch the composition onto the board using a little paint and roughly block in the dark areas, this helps me to ensure that the proportions are correct and the design is working.  

 After thinly sketching in the darks, it's time to move onto blocking in the large masses of sky, water and fells

After thinly sketching in the darks, it's time to move onto blocking in the large masses of sky, water and fells

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With all the key colours blocked in it is possible to assess whether the painting 'feels' like the place and, if there is a problem, it is early enough to fix it before time is spent on details.

And then the final set of decisions; how much to include and what to leave out? Edges may be softened or sharpened, details added or reduced to balance the painting. The tricky part is remembering not to overwork it and to maintain a focus on the original intention of the painting (to capture the light across the water and convey the depth of the landscape in layers). The benefit of working plein air here is clear - the temptation to overwork is greatly reduced by wind and cold, especially with a chilly audience and a warm coffee shop beckoning! I love that working on location forces me to be economical with the brush, stating the salient points of the image as quickly and succinctly as I can manage, like a shorthand for the scene in front of me. Every painting serves as a lesson in the language of description through mark and colour. Without the luxuries of time and comfort our works must be more honest and simple, a gut reaction to the moment, and therin lies their charm; just little moments captured in paint.