Branchflower's Blog About Art and Websites

The Problem with Plein Air Painting is...

Last summer a friend and I scheduled a painting day in Portland’s park blocks.  We chose a great location with red bistro umbrellas in the middle-ground and plenty of diners and strollers.  The park was in deep shade, light was somewhat greenish as it filtered through thick leaves, and the red umbrellas were mostly in shade.  Heavily tinted bistro windows appeared stark black.  I painted what I saw and was predictably disappointed in the dark result.  This is the problem I have with plein air painting:  Local color does not always match mood, and mood is the driving force in my paintings.


When Portland Art Museum Rental/Sales Gallery invited a baker’s dozen of its artists to a paint-out in the same park, I approached it in a wholly different way.  I preselected a site, photographed it, did multiple pencil sketches, and studied the values.  The monument of Teddy Roosevelt, which I wanted to feature, was lost in background foliage of the same value.  Altering the surrounding foliage to a cheerful light value created the center of interest I wanted.  The artist in my painting was actually facing me, but turning her toward the monument created a link between her and the monument.  Had I painted her the way I saw her, she would have been the subject of the painting, and Roosevelt, superfluous competition.


I wanted to portray a cheerful, busy day in the park.  And while that was exactly what the day provided, it was not what local color and real values provided.


Such high-key oil sketches as these are abnormal for me:  I am a landscape painter enamored with shadows and low-contrast.  Entirely out of my comfort zone with urban/people painting, I find it necessary to dig deep into the principals that govern my meditative landscape paintings:  Composition, color, value—and most of all, mood—pushing one reality to create another.

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Oil Painting Demo--my approach to painting

Spring Storm

Click on the DEMO tab to learn how I paint in this step-by-step illustrated demo of Spring Storm.  In this start-to-finish demo I will tell you what materials I am using and what I am thinking about at each stage of the painting.  Brushwork, color theory, botany--it's all covered.

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Alla Prima Workshop

Yvonne at Fire and Earth Studio, photo by Thomas Kitts

Let me start by saying there was no fluff in Thomas Jefferson Kitts workshop.  Painting alla prima, we completed five studies in three days.   Kitts challenged us to detect the subtleties of value, hue and chroma.  He introduced several of the students to “notan”, a concept of value-massing, and gave us a lesson on the Gamblin color system, a variation on Munsell's system.

We painted still lifes from sumptuous arrangements of fresh fruit and flowers.  The play of light and shadow through the arrangements gave us opportunities to apply what we learned about value-massing.  On the last day, Kitts did a demo painting, then we painted from a model, separating values and color temperature on pale skin.

Kitts, a Portland Oregon artist, ocassionally consults with Gamblin Artist's Oil Colors .  Each student got a goodie bag of Gambin products, including an informative DVD on color mixing theory.  Following the workshop, I spent a morning reading Gamblin's website--well worth the time.  After I photograph my workshop paintings, I'll give more detail about what we covered in class.

One tip:  I usually wear smooth-soled SAS shoes.  But by the end of the first day, my feet were tired and freezing (this is February in Portland on a concrete floor.)  For the rest of the workshop I wore wool sox and hiking shoes with heavy tread.  The big spaces in the tread seem to keep shoes from absorbing cold from the floor, while the wool sox provided cushion, warmth, and kept my feet drier.  Warm feet at winter workshops are happy feet.

If you are looking for a painting workshop in Portland, Oregon, I heartily recommend Kitts.  Plan on working hard, learning a lot, and taking breaks and lunch on the fly--and finishing invigorated. See his paintings and find his workshops at

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Painting with Primaries I

In a prior post (DVD Review: “Three Landscape Studies” by Scott Christensen, August 22, 2010) I wrote that I would report on my experiments with a palette limited to three colors plus white and black.  Frankly, there have been a few duds and some paint-overs with my more extensive palette.  I’m not giving up on it, however, because I really like the concept.  The following 8x10" oil sketch, using primaries, worked.


These are the colors I am using for my primaries:

  • Grumbacher RedOak Glen en plein air
  • Old Holland Cadmium Yellow Lemon
  • Old Holland Ultramarine Blue
  • Old Holland Titanium White
  • Grumbacher PT Ivory Black

While these colors differ somewhat from Christensen’s palette I am following his basic theory and practice.  Only one brush was used, a filbert #4.

This late summer setting is in the little mountain community of Oak Glen, in southern California.  While Sharon Rachal painted the beautiful old stone school, I tackled a thoroughly green scene with a charming old shed.  As we were cleaning up, Sharon, with a twinkle in her eye, noted I had painted the restrooms.

I selected this view because of the challenge it presented in mixing warm and cool greens in a green-dominant painting.  Could I make the greens advance and recede properly?  Could I make the shed advance even though it was a cooler green than the surrounding foliage?  Could such a green scene be interesting?  When faced with a scene to paint, not only do you need to edit out the superfluous distractions, but you need to identify a set of questions or conditions that keep you focused.

I mixed big piles of basic dark and warm light, using these to tint and tone other mixes.  There is quite a bit of Grumbacher Red in the sun-lit portion of the green shed.  The angle of shadow on the shed is critical to the painting and is repeated in the foreground grass as well as by a tree branch.  Note a slight break in the shadow on the shed, which slows the speed of the line and reduces its severity.

This 1.5 hour plein air sketch afforded me greater understanding of primary colors and how to mix them.  It also proved a plein air painter can travel lightly by using primaries.

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