Three useful systems

Dear Artist, Outdoor work can be confusing. Because there is often so much to look at, the painter may not know where to begin. Here are three basic approaches you might find useful:

Evening crit time in the cabin

Even though your planned subject may be off in the distance, before you do anything about it, search around your immediate environment and find something in the foreground. This can be anything that interests you or has design potential — a stump, colourful foliage, animal or human figure. Render this to some degree of completion first. Pay attention to its form, design and colour and try to get it more or less right. With one strong motif in the foreground, the rest of the design can be more easily composed. Elements of the composition can then be tied in to harmonize and complement the foreground motif, and a more enriched work is the result. Another way to approach an environment is to mask off a particular view using two L-shaped pieces of card or a small viewfinder. Eliminating peripheral clutter clarifies compositions. The problem with this approach is that you can get stuck with what’s out there. After the fact, significant powers of imagination may be required to bring the work up to creative standards. Nevertheless, pre-framing has its place. Seasoned painters tend to look at the world and see frames all over the place.

Lake edge in the mist

A third way is to pay little or no attention to the view at hand and to dedicate your eyes to the canvas itself and the design as it develops. One stroke begets another and a new vision appears. Rather than slavishly copying a scene, one inhales the feeling of the place and commits this feeling to the canvas realm. In this mode, conventions such as form and drawing may suffer, but more abstract and personal work may result. This is the style finder’s way. The result is often a unique vision and a country mile of personal satisfaction. It’s sometimes the combination of many approaches that keeps the practitioner interested. The outdoor workstation is a place of invention as well as toil. The eternal puzzle draws us back. It was ever thus. We are not donut machines.

acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches
by Sara Genn

Best regards, Robert PS: “The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration.” (Thomas Edison) Esoterica: In some situations it may be necessary to retreat to your comfort zone. At other times you need to cruise for new challenges and new subjects. A combination keeps you at work until the grazing elk get too close for comfort.   Mountain retreat near Jasper, Alberta

Resident elk nearby the cabin


Medicine Lake near Jasper


Mark 5 painting contraption in action


Patty Cucman painting Aquila Mountain


We are not alone in this wilderness


Alpenglow, Mt. Edith Cavell, Edith Lake


Multiple efforts in serendipitous order


Sara the intuitive spirit

            Manipulating nature by Elizabeth Concannon, St. Louis, MO, USA   When I teach, we explore all of these approaches but the most power comes from using number two (L-shaped cards) and then convincing young people that they may actually move a tree to balance the composition, etc. There is power in the thought that we are not only reporting — but creating.   Fixate by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada  

oil on canvas
by Brigitte Nowak

Another option: “fixate” — Most landscape paintings are a view to the horizon; they often include water, rocks and trees, in various configurations and patterns. Robert — and other painters as well — have done a masterful job of representing these patterns and interpreting the view. When looking at such vistas, I am sometimes torn between feeling that the landscape is beautiful, and feeling that while the vista is beautiful, it is just another view of water, rocks and trees. For myself, when faced with these thoughts, I often try to focus on something small, something most painters might ignore: a mushroom, flower or fern: the landscape is made up of these inconsequential bits of matter, and they have a beauty in their own right, and can provide the artist with a unique perspective and subject matter.   Using your hands by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA  

“Framing the Landscape”
mixed media
by B.J. Adams

Years ago I thought about the outdoor landscape and the problem of limiting such a wide open space. I didn’t have Robert’s three better methods to narrow the space before the artist. I created an artwork titled, Framing the Landscape, while indoors at my sewing machine. Using my hands as the frame, as I had seen landscape painters do, I framed an abstract scene.     Three new steps to simplification by Alfonso Tejada, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“Bardini Gardens”
watercolour painting
by Alfonso Tejada

I have developed 3 steps to simplify what the mind and eyes can’t differentiate all at once by providing a simple system of structure, relationship and values. For my students it has proven to help them to develop a system of organization and selection of a subject as well as beginning to understand the logics of composition. I call them topography, structure and contrast (colour and light). Topography: deals with defining a key plane for reference. This can be a simple ground edge or a sloped hill or a street configuration. Structure: focus on identifying vertical and horizontal elements, such as trees, natural features, mountains tops or walls and roofs edges. Contrast: making notations on shadows patterns and establishing dominant values in colours. This last step is perhaps the most important to create a sense of place and reality. Marking shadow patterns is the light reference needed to create depth and guide the eye into a composition. It is a vital step when painting outdoors. The transient quality of the sun path needs to be captured at the beginning of a session and evaluate its supporting qualities towards the end of the session if improves the final work. Establishing dominant colour values is the key to a personal working palette and a successful composition supported by all the other above mentioned steps. This is only the beginning. The following steps are the personal struggle between of mind and feelings that every artist needs to learn to balance. Painting is a wonderful way of meditating on the self of our passions.   The value of cropping by Christopher Boghosian, Los Angeles, CA, USA   “Eliminating peripheral clutter clarifies compositions. The problem with this approach is that you can get stuck with what’s out there. After the fact, significant powers of imagination may be required to bring the work up to creative standards.” Can you please expound on this, Robert? I’m a filmmaker, and once again your discussion on painting directly addresses my craft. As you know, storyboarding and previsualization is a common preparatory method, which your comment above would address; however, I don’t quite understand your reasoning. Thank you! Thanks, Chris. Just as the “aspect ratio” in film determines composition and mise-en-scene, cropping to proportion determines what the viewer will or will not see. Framing gives creator control. In sketches and storyboards alike, the edges are most important. Conversely, free flowing vignette sketches in preparation for easel paintings are almost useless.   Seeing the big picture by Bud Ciccozzi, Milan, Italia   One of the commonest mistakes new painters make is to get hung up on detail too early on in the creative process. Your suggestions are all fine, but people really need to sit back and squint at the scene as well as the work itself to see that the main forms are beginning to stand out. Reducing scenes to black and white is accommodated by squinting, a habit which also cuts down on detail. By overall examination and elimination artists can begin to see when the big picture is beginn8ng to work. Without the big picture paintings are weak and uninteresting to the viewer, and not nearly so much fun to paint.   What about that easel? by Jackie Knott   Okay, I like the three useful systems, depending on the painting. Granted, that, what is disturbing about this clickback is your chair. How on earth do you rise from such a mass-below-center of gravity disparity? Roll and stand? The standing canvas deserves some commentary but your chair would have me limping back to the car after a couple hours…. if I could get up. Ergonomics are crucial to stamina in the studio and especially plein air. I can’t see how that chair is comfortable enough to concentrate on the lovely scenes before you.

Robert and the easel

(RG note) Thanks, Jackie, and all the others who took the time to comment on my contraption. Actually I can stay in there for a long time without discomfort and, apart from it being a bit low, it’s pretty handy. It’s main fault, as you pointed out, is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to get out of. I lent it to a friend and he was not able to get out of it for a week. He got a lot of work done, though. There is, however, a technique to getting out of it. The painter has to shift his weight forward and tilt the whole chair forward so that it is just a matter of stepping out. You’ve got to sort of learn to “fall forward.” Sometimes when you do this you print your wet painting on your shirt. Apart from bad work in the first place, this can lessen your work’s value. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to give the getting-out tutorial to my friend, and though we are still friends, he is now badly bent. Furthermore, problems arise when the umbrella is attached. It’s necessary to put large stones in the back pouch of the chair to prevent the wind taking you away, and the extra weight back there makes the forward tip particularly difficult and dangerous. I do not recommend anyone building this unpleasant device unless you intend to do a lot of work in the same place.   [fbcomments url=””]   Featured Workshop: Mothership Adventures
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Serenity base

oil on canvas by Christine Hanlon, San Francisco, CA, USA

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Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Three useful systems

From: Darla — Jun 18, 2010

Did you mean you should paint what attracted you to the view rather than every single thing that’s in front of you? This helps me decide what to paint. First I look, then I think about what it is about this scene that I really like (like a shape, edge, light effect, etc.), then I compose with that in mind. Not just for landscapes, but for everything.

From: Linda Saccoccio — Jun 18, 2010

That landscape is phenomenal. I can even get that through the pics you posted.

I can also understand why you wrote about the possibility of outdoor work being challenging! I think I would just want to “be” there. Create later or maybe write a haiku or two.
From: Alan Brown — Jun 18, 2010

Just a quick note to say thank you for your messages over the years.

I grew up listening to the BBC World Services and one of my favourite programs was letter from America with Alistair Cooke. Cooke always seemed comfortable with the way he talked around and about his subject. Your emails give me much the same impression and are a joy to read. So thanks for those that have been and those to come. Keep up the good work.
From: John Smith — Jun 18, 2010

Your question is interesting in this article Nicole, but you cannot glaze anything till it’s very dry or it will crack, especially impasto work…he should have told you that. Do you know it takes 100 years for oil paint to fully dry?

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Jun 18, 2010

To me it is mind boggling to work outdoors but I keep trying. It is very difficult to focus on one central point because every direction you look at are so beautiful and you would like it to be the central focus of the painting. The three useful systems you mentioned are very good and I tried but my eyes keep wandering as well as my imagination running amok. I keep trying and perhaps I’ll find a technique that I can master that I am satisfied with.

From: Marlene Lewis — Jun 19, 2010

I just wanted to mention something about Thomas Edison (since you referred to him in your letter)…He indeed planned and plotted. He electrocuted an old circus elephant in order to show how superior his electricity was…Just thought you might want to know.

From: Barbara Vatcher — Jun 19, 2010

Realizing how seldom I write to thank you for your letters of

wisdom, guidance, instruction and inspiration. They and YOU are so valuable to me! Thank you so VERY much.
From: Mark Sharp — Jun 19, 2010

Hi Robert and Sara

As you sit quietly for hours in the wilderness, do you ever have problem with bears? Thanks.
From: Walter Usselman — Jun 19, 2010

The world is too full of artists who “pay little or no attention to the environment.” Surely our job is to observe and know this great mystery, and then try to interpret it. I say, get a hold on the basics and then let your mind and imagination wander.

From: A. M. Gloeckler. Dresden — Jun 19, 2010

The foreground is indeed the key to successful compositions. You need to solve its problems first. There are several things to think about. You need enough interest to give the viewer something to stand upon. You need to soft focus it so the main subject can be sharper and stand out, and you need to make use of the foreground’s potential to lead the eye in and around your main theme.

From: Marietta Camps — Jun 20, 2010

Thank you Robert, for your letters and your generous sharing of insights and experiences.

From: Hank Richards — Jun 20, 2010

Outdoor work can be confusing, but it is also liberating. All artists should try it once in awhile. It make take a bit of time to get used to doing it, but it pays off in enriching the other work you may be producing.

From: Sharon Spaulding — Jun 21, 2010

I have another method: fail to find a focal point, ignore the foreground, add branches or buildings that lead out of the picture plane, put something boring in the precise middle of the canvas (or split, putting two such things equadistant from the edges), fail to add highlights, and place shadows such that featured objects seem to be floating in air. It would not be immodest of me to say that I’ve been very successful in producing works with all these elements intact, and avoiding the pitfalls that lead to well composed work. One day, when my talent begins to flag, I might have something I can sign and put on a wall, my inner hundred monkeys having finally produced an acceptable salon piece.

From: Barb — Jun 21, 2010

Re – glazing oils. Of course you don’t have to wait 100 years to glaze over oil! You just have to make sure it’s dry enought not to disturb the lower layer, and add more oil in the glaze. If you follow fat over lean rule, you can glaze as soon as the underpainting is dry to touch – even earlier if you don’t mind lifting some of the lower stuff.

From: Debra Davies — Jun 21, 2010

Thank you for sharing your outdoor experiences, but a very special thank you for adding about 10 yrs. to my life!!

You know, (they) say that laughing everyday can add years to your life. After reading how to exit your easel chair, I laughed so hard, the tears wouldn’t stop streaming. Would love to see a video!!
From: Sylvia Tucker — Jun 22, 2010

Funny, Sharon! A perfect companion to the easel chair paragraph.


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