Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “plein air”

In The Studio 5: Reworking Plein Air Landscapes

Something I’ve never been a fan of doing is revisiting older paintings after some time has passed. The process of reconstructing or even merely re-approaching the original mindstate, inspiration, and vision for the painting feels spiritually regurgitative in some unclean way. Like digging up a dead issue in a relationship with your partner. I’ve never been one to want to dwell in the past, favoring the pursuit of new goals and the exploration of new territory over the retread of old ground.

But since embarking on a landscape painting journey over the past few years I’ve seen some of the masters of the genre doing just this–picking up old plein air studies to breath new life into them, perhaps making them more presentable as a truly finished piece to a buying audience–and had stared at some of my early plein air studies long enough to realize how I too could push the sense of drama or atmosphere in them.

View From The Studio, before (L) and after glaze layer.

Not to mention, more hours logged in the practice of landscape painting, more hours logged studying weather and outdoor light with more intention and discernment, has had the natural and inevitable effect of expanding my critique ability of what I’ve previously done as well as eased some of my fears about ruining those original results. This shift is the tangible, or at least quantitative, proof that learning is happening–awesome!

So in a brief fit of discontented boredom lately I pulled a few early landscapes off the wall and put my glazing knowledge learned from many hours of studio still life painting to use on some formerly alla-prima studies that looked a little flat.

Oil glazing truly does replicate the phenomenon of translucent–but not completely transparent–atmosphere that we live in and see through every time we gaze into the distance. Which makes it a perfect tool in the landscape painter’s skillset. For advanced stages of realism in any genre I find it to be absolutely indispensable, and enjoyed the practice of applying it to my new pursuit of landscape painting mastery.

A little 4 x 6 inch study of my former backyard bridge, given a more dramatic late afternoon shadow treatment.

On The Road 12: Spring and Summer Plein Air Adventures

I’ve been so busy painting in the studio for an upcoming exhibition of all new still lifes (announcements soon!) that I forgot to post about my spring and summer landscape painting fun.

Part I: April

At the beginning of April I was in Arizona, where as soon as I get out of Phoenix, I’m reminded why it’s one of my favorite nature states: so much variety of vast and mentally cleansing wild terrain! On this trip I had the good fortune of being able to paint the low desert in the south and then venture north of Flagstaff to paint the completely different high desert plains.

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Salt River, Tonto National Forest, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

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High Plains, Wupatki National Monument, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

Part II: May

In late April I headed to the motherland of classical art for some work and pleasure. First stop was Venice, where I was too busy to paint, but caught some great iPhone snaps (not hard to do basically anywhere in Italy) with my now-antiquated 5s .

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As the calendar turned to May, I traveled with friends to the lush hills of Tuscany, where I had the opportunity to experience the best views the entire region has to offer–from the mountains further inland (overlooking Leonardo’s birthplace Vinci) to the stunning Mediterranean coast–and produced these two plein air studies.

That's me underneath the arch. Photos courtesy of Luca Natalini

That’s me underneath the arch. Photos courtesy of Luca Natalini

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View From Monsummano Alto, oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Lerici Sunset, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

Lerici Sunset, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

In between travels I managed to squeeze in a plein air session while home in Austin, on the occasion of a few artist friends being in town. We made the short drive out to one of the city’s little natural treasures, McKinney Falls State Park, which boasts some active waterfalls and a variety of interesting rock formations with a kind of outer space vibe.

Lower McKinney Falls, oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Lower McKinney Falls, oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Part III: June

In June I ventured to the altitudes of Lake Tahoe for the first time, and got roasted by the deceptively strong summer sun while painting the beautiful vistas of Heavenly Mountain and Emerald Bay.

Western View From Heavenly, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

Western View From Heavenly, oil on panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2016

Emerald Bay, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

Emerald Bay, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

On the eve of my departure I caught an ultra-quick sunset session as the haze from California wildfires filtered out some magical orange and pink rays. Since I only had time to block in a quick impression of the scene, I revisited the piece after I returned home in order to smooth everything out and push the atmosphere.

Lake Tahoe Sunset, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

Lake Tahoe Sunset, oil on panel, 11 x 5 inches, 2016

Part IV: July

In July I visited Ireland for the second time, but first as a plein air painter, and was excited about the opportunities for new environs. The Emerald Isle did not disappoint as I found my way into the mountains south of Dublin for a quick session, then to the picturesque Howth coastline just north of the city, which had me most nostalgic for my boyhood summers on Cape Cod here in the States.

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Keeping my painting out of the rain.

Mountain Stream With View, oil on panel, 11 x 4 inches, 2016

Mountain Stream With View, oil on panel, 11 x 4 inches, 2016

One of the only moments of the day without any tourists in the shot.

One of the only moments of the day without any tourists in the shot.

Baily Lighthouse at Howth Head, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Baily Lighthouse at Howth Head, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

On The Road 11: New England Plein Air

At the beginning of this month I travelled back to my homeland of Connecticut, hoping for late winter weather mild enough to endure some outdoor painting of the classic New England scenery I grew up with and now become nostalgic for after these last 7 years in the ecology of central Texas. I wasn’t disappointed, as Mother Nature provided a few days of sunshine with the slightest hint of spring.

Colder than it looks, trust me.

Colder than it looks, trust me.

My first opportunity was a very brief session in the late afternoon golden hour at Killam’s Point in Branford, where it was not just barely (baarrrely) warm enough to endure a stretch of time standing still with finger joints stiffening by the hour and legendary March breezes dropping the wind chill as the sun sank into the water of western Long Island Sound. The lapping of the waves into stony sand and the smell of seaweed washed ashore were both adequately satiating to my coastal longings despite the useless frozen digits and deep chill creeping into my core that didn’t fully thaw until much later that night. While far from my finest work, I appreciate the challenges overcome in order to paint something even this rough.

"Killam's Point Sunset", oil on panel, 6.5 x 5 inches, 2016

Killam’s Point Sunset, oil on panel, 6.5 x 5 inches, 2016

The following day was mercifully a bit warmer, especially being away from the coast, in the forest interior of Meriden’s Hubbard Park where I happened upon a softly babbling stream early enough into a failed quest to reach the summit of the small mountain that the park envelops. Up on that mountain, at the edge of a cliff, stands tiny Castle Craig, which overlooks the park and the rest of New Haven County to the south (and which I have never been to, despite growing up practically in its shadow in nearby Cheshire), and I hoped to reach it easily in order to paint the scenic vista of my homeland. But the limited daylight hours and weight of my painting gear upon my surgically repaired lower lumbar were enough to keep me resigned to the forest below, where I was thankful to find a secluded and easily accessible place to paint a forest interior that I’m quite pleased with. Juxtaposing the smoothly blended flowing water with the rougher chunks of loose alla-prima paint technique has become one of my favorite effects to attempt in my young plein air painting practice.

Hubbard Park easel

Late Winter Stream At Hubbard Park, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Late Winter Stream At Hubbard Park, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Miniature Landscapes

This past month I unearthed a bunch of tiny frames from my studio storage for the purpose of painting little gifts for friends and family this holiday season. I’d been collecting these things at various vintage stores and yard sales for the past several years for just such an occasion. Looking to tap into the peace and simplicity of painting outdoors during this colder (mostly) indoors season, I decided to attempt some miniature landscapes for these frames.

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Various miniatures, oil on canvas paper, 2015

For the first time since embarking on my landscape painting journey about a year ago, I worked from photos rather than “en plein air.” Although unable to immerse myself in the atmosphere and unique light properties of the setting, I found the photos an incredibly effective practice modality due to the minimum of mental conversion needed in the controlled studio environment. The unchanging two-dimensional photo and the optimal lighting conditions were a great way to narrow down the variables in the artistic equation, freeing up my memory to attempt to rekindle some of the original vibe of these landscape locations, as well as focus on fundamentals like color matching and painting technique. I imagine this being somewhat similar to what the Hudson River School masters experienced in their studios, working strictly from memory and their plein air field studies.

 

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Miraflores Beach at Night, oil on linen panel, 4 x 6 inches, 2015

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Full Moon Sunset Over East Austin, oil on linen panel, 4 x 6 inches (oval), 2015

Each of these tiny paintings were completed with the alla-prima technique over the course of a single 2-3 hour session, including the lone non-landscape study of the inside of an apheresis blood cassette (random, I know…more on this in the coming months, hopefully…), which was a gift for my phlebotomist friend.

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On The Road 10: Peruvian Plein Air

Earlier this month I traveled to Peru, where I trekked to majestic Machu Picchu for the first time, documenting the epic Andes landscape throughout the journey with some plein air studies.

Being new to plein air painting, I took a few months before the trip to dial in my portable painting setup, experimenting with different materials and products in order to arrive at something as travel-friendly as possible.

 

Thumbnail sketching with my South American friends on Machu Picchu.

Thumbnail sketching with my South American friends on Machu Picchu.

 

Not only did everything need to clear foreign and domestic customs, the intense hiking aspect of the forthcoming journey required it to be as small, lightweight, and efficient as possible. After getting the initial inspiration from my summer workshop teacher Thomas Kegler‘s novel and ingenious modifications to the traditional plein air pochade box, I searched the internet and local stores for a few more ideas and products. In the end I devised something very functional, fairly efficient, not terribly expensive (as far as high-end art and travel equipment goes), acceptably small, and certainly lightweight.

NOTEWORTHY GEAR

  1. Tripod: The most important part of a plein air easel is the tripod, and to get one that is (1) reliable, (2) sturdy, (3) small, and (4) lightweight, you have to spend some money. It’s not worth the headaches later on, out in the field, to mess around with the cheap stuff. So I read reviews online and settled on the Manfrotto Befree, which seemed to intersect all of the 4 criteria above at an optimal place. After buying the tripod, I modified it by drilling a hole through the center stem a few milimeters from the bottom, in order to be able to hang a weight (my backpack) from it while working outdoors, which is crucial for keeping the very lightweight tripod sturdy in any kind of wind. So far it’s working out great, I just wish it went just a few inches higher like their studio tripods do, but, you can’t have it all when you’re concerned about size and packing space. (Grade: A).
  2. Pochade Box: Ethically, I strongly dislike Walmart, but when it’s the only large store in your small Texas town, sometimes you go there for the one random thing you want that they have (and comfort yourself afterwards by remembering that the entire world is headed for doomsday anyway because of capitalist greed causing global warming, and your minuscule nonsupport of Walmart wouldn’t do shit to stop that, really). In this case, it was the unlikely and unexpected score of a lightweight, plastic, 3-part folding notebook holder thing (with perfectly placed interior velcro elastic straps?!). For around $10.00, and requiring only a few small tripod-mounting holes to be drilled into it, this was an absolute bargain. …and wait, that’s not all!! It’s perfectly sized to fit two 9 x 12 inch panels in such a way that it doubles as your take-home wet painting carrier when you’re done with your session!! Call now, and this product can be yours for only 4 easy payments of literally $2.99!! Seriously though, I’m so pumped about this thing that I want to make an infomercial about it to spread the word. (Grade: A)
  3. Paint Carrier: Just a small bait holder from the hunting and fishing section at…Walmart. Or probably most hardware stores. It worked well enough, but I’m still on the hunt for one of equally small size, but with an airtight seal and divided into cubes instead of just rows. The paint mixed together somewhat during transport and higher temperatures, and began to dry out as well due to airflow (a rag soaked with moisture-enhancing Clove oil placed into the container drastically delayed drying time, though). Customs/TSA ProTip: If asked to explain what your oil paint is, never say they are paint! Always refer to them as “artist colors”! “Paint” tends to get lumped in with the general category of industrial, toxic materials banned for civilian flight, and they try to take those away from you, or at least tend to give you a hard time about it. Flying with as few “artist colors” as possible, and always packing them deep in your checked baggage rather than carry-ons, will also minimize hassles. (Grade: C+)
  4. Umbrella: At first these seem frilly and wasteful but after a few nasty plein air session sunburns, you realize how crucial they are when you’re standing still in any kind of direct sunlight for any length of time. I’ve been happy so far with my very first umbrella purchase, the Multi Mount Collapsible Umbrella from Guerilla Painter. It packs very small, and doesn’t weigh much. I wish the fabric wasn’t black though, because that can make your workspace very dark. And I also wish the mounting clamp had more angle options but that might be wishful thinking given its price range, size and weight. (Grade: A-)
  5. Crucial Miscellaneous Supplies: (1) Cheap zippered cloth bags from Walmart for carrying whatever. (2) Tiny bungee cords from the local hardware store. I use the Cords to keep my pochade box setup sturdy and still–just hook them anywhere, to anything, for some instant tension. These things have been really handy, and surprisingly one of the most indispensable things I bought for the setup. (3) Large industrial rubber bands, also surprisingly useful, in this case for making sure the pochade box doesn’t come unlatched unexpectedly and spring open, and ditto for the paint carrier. (4) Tiny glass vial for carrying solvent. Juuust big enough to hold enough solvent to dip your brush into and sort of clean them after you’re done, until you can give them a thorough cleaning at home. Carrying solvent around really sucks, it’s the worst part of plein air oil painting for me. It’s a health and safety hazard, of course, and not healthy for the environment that you’re trying so hard to appreciate. So, “as little as possible” has been my goal ever since beginning oil painting, and certainly since starting my plein air journey. Customs/TSA ProTip: Because I am a bad person, I have forgotten about and accidentally flown with this single tiny vial containing a mere several drops of solvent, buried deep in my checked baggage, a few times before. Obviously doing this isn’t advisable, and obviously I procure solvent at my destination whenever feasible, and properly dispose of it there as well. So my tip is to scout out in advance where you can get mineral spirits at your destination, and always keep it to an absolute minimum quantity. While on the go, wrap the jar or vial thoroughly with plastic and then double-bag it with ziplocs or anything else you can think of. (Grade: A-)
  6. Backpack: I’ve been so happy with my Osprey Comet 30L over the past few years of heavy, rugged use. It’s comfortable, durable, has enough pockets and compartments for everything I tend to carry, and is also Camelbak compatible, which came in handy during this trip, because carrying separate water containers is a drag. I was able to stuff my 2.0 liter reservoir into my backpack along with every single other supply needed, including energy bars, and the whole pack wasn’t unbearably heavy. It was certainly doable over short periods for someone of average to slightly above average fitness range (and not to mention at an elevation of, in this case, 6000-10,000 feet).

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So as for my portable painting setup criteria mentioned earlier, here’s how I rate my current setup overall:

  1. Functionality: A
  2. Efficiency: B+
  3. Cost: A-
  4. Size: A-
  5. Weight A-

Being new to the plein air community, I’m sure there’s further improvements to the system I can make and of course, much more experience and knowledge to be gained, but this recent journey was successful enough that I wanted to share and add to the body of helpful knowledge out there.

As for the experience and the work itself, here are some photos.

Three location shots:

Cusco, Peru

First stop in Cusco, Peru: 2 hour sunset study.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Second stop in Ollantaytambo, Peru: 2 hour sunset study.

Third stop, Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, Peru.

Third stop, Machu Picchu, Peru: 4 hour study.

 

Three finished studies, 9 x 12 inches each, oil on panel:

"Above Cusco"

“Above Cusco”

"Ollantaytambo Sunset"

“Ollantaytambo Sunset”

"Huayna Picchu"

“Huayna Picchu”

And some iPhone 5s photography shot throughout the trip, for good measure:

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Summer Plein Air Adventures

This summer marked my first serious foray into true outdoor (plein air) landscape painting, in an effort to deepen my knowledge on the visual effects of atmosphere and natural light. This endeavor also conveniently bridged a longstanding divide between my love for exploring the outdoors and my love of painting.

Until this year the two had been almost always mutually exclusive, routinely prompting an internal conflict on beautiful days over whether to satisfy the urge to paint in the studio or the urge to go outside. But I finally confronted my fear of alla prima painting and began the difficult process of learning this completely contradictory painting technique to the one I’ve trained in for over a decade.

muddy creek session

Although discouraging at times, I couldn’t be happier with my experience so far; it feels like a whole new artistic world has opened up to me…the proverbial kid in the candy store phenomenon. I feel reinvigorated creatively, which any artist knows is a joyous feeling, and I’m excited to see how this new painting discipline evolves my artistic vision.

For now I’m still entrenched in the learning curve, looking forward to each new (and challenging)

outing, where I’m slowly gaining the experience needed to bring this vast new body of knowledge back into the studio for larger and more ambitous works in my usual indirect layering technique (ala the Hudson River School methods).

So here are my favorite plein air studies from this summer, a few of them completed at an incredibly fun workshop taught by Thomas Kegler in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. All are oil on panel and sized either 8 x 10 or 9 x 12 inches.

 

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“Purple Trail”, Sleeping Giant State Park, CT

"Muddy Creek", Lockhart State Park, TX

“Muddy Creek”, Lockhart State Park, TX

"White Mountains Sunset", North Conway, NH

“White Mountains Sunset”, North Conway, NH

"Cathedral Ledge After A Storm", North Conway, NH

“Cathedral Ledge After A Storm”, North Conway, NH

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“Bridge To The Studio”, Lockhart, TX

"The Hill Country From Mt. Bonnell", Austin, TX

“Hill Country Sunset From Mt. Bonnell”, Austin, TX

Notes & Advice 6

I came across this quote today by a plein air pastel artist, and found it to be a perfect description for the process of realism painting. In my own work, time and again, I find I need to come back to basics in order to accurately portray the form and mass of an object or the atmosphere of a scene–to see things simply, before choosing to add complexity and detail. The ongoing challenge that all of us who undertake the realist genre have is depicting the true, unmistakable essence of an object or scene without being a slave to reference or the infinite detail of reality.  When we manage to accomplish this tightrope walk, we create an illusion that ironically seems more real than reality, in turn creating a sense of awe and wonder in the viewer.

Simplify the Scene

by Richard McKinley

“Because light changes, it’s important to work with efficiency and power when you’re working en plein air. Detail is not an artist’s friend; it’s easy to believe it holds the answers, but in fact it becomes the diversion. Simplifying what you see is a necessity. Remember, it isn’t individual blades of grass that make the field rise and fall across the landscape.

“Without light, we see nothing, so light falling on form is the key to communicating what we see. It’s by arranging shapes and creating the form that you represent the scene to the viewer. Your goal isn’t to create a painting that’s polished and finessed, but rather to capture the essence of the light and the magic that captured your attention in the first place.

“Ever since the arrival of photography, artists have had to fight the urge to see it as the master of what is real. There’s no doubt that photography, used carefully, is a valuable tool. What limits its usefulness is the belief that it can’t tell a lie. That can prejudice your thoughts more than you realize. Try to imagine what artists thought the world looked like two hundred years ago. It’s difficult to do when you’ve never known a time without the printed picture as a part of your consciousness.

“When you take photos back to the studio to use as reference, be sure to ask yourself: What is it that the camera won’t capture? That’s what you want to infuse into the painting.”