Plein Air Composition and Telling Lies

Sometimes the best composition comes from being willing to lie a bit. That’s the case with most good plein air paintings. Nature rarely composes, artists must compose.

“Morning Light over the Big Blue,” pastel 9x12 sold

I created the above pastel at the recent Indiana Plein Air Painters event in New Castle, Indiana. I found a dead end road in the Wilbur Wright Nature Preserve with a closed bridge over the Big Blue River.

This pastel was done on pastel paper but paper that had a rougher texture added by brushing on clear gesso. The rougher texture created a surface that I could lightly drag sides of sticks of pastel over and only the ridges would catch the color.

I first roughed in the darks and lights, then rubbed out large shapes, filling in the gaps of the texture by using a pipe insulation. The light touch was a series of colors in the same family of blues, blue-greens, and violets -- all layered in carefully.

Selecting My Points of Interest

Editing the scene is always a huge challenge when doing plien air. There's always so much information. I used the bottom thumbnail from the above set of three. There were two main things that drew me to this scene 1) the bright sun shining on the water's surface at the vanishing point, 2) the clump of trees in the foreground that created separation between the foreground and middleground.

The first drawing of the three is more like the actual scene. But the interesting clump of trees in the foreground became way too close to Center. The lying began in the second drawing. I moved the trees to the right. This solved one problem, but this second drawing didn't have the contrast and show the bright light reflecting on the water in the distance, so the third drawing added the needed contrast and told me I needed to pump up the contrast.

The darks and lights were laid in and rubbed out into large shapes using a pipe insulation. I've begun using this as my standard method, abandoning my use of water washes, or watercolors, etc. There's no drying time with this method.

What I Learned

  • Tonalism techniques of limited palette and increased contrast help me not let my colors become too overwhelming as they have in the past.

  • The diagonal lines of the trees on the left and the water line of the river bank help create radiating lines to the center of interest where the water shines or reflects the morning light.

  • I am liking "lack of detail" -- it's helping me create "Other worldliness"

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