I’m no Plein Jane

Just ended a weeks’ workshop given by Bruce Williamson, an artist and teacher living in Texas who flew here to St. Croix to hold a plein air workshop with the idea of turning us into ” Painters of Light”. He refers to The Yin/Yang of Painting by Hongnian Zhang and Lois Woolley.

Some rapt students at the waters’ edge watching a landscape take shape.

Bruce is a wonderful painter and generous teacher. I wondered what the challenges would be in painting with acrylics while everyone else painted with oils.

I soon found out.

I likened it  to wanting to dance with the corps, but while they were in ballet slippers, I was in tap shoes! Did I enjoy it? Yes! Did I learn? Yes! Was I able to apply the same techniques and get the same results? A very frustrated no!

Our repertoire consisted of still life and landscape with the components of composition ( light and dark ), light source ( warm light, cool shadows ), focal point, and value based on grey scale ( Frank Gardner has a great post on this ) being consistent in whatever we painted. Varying directions of brush strokes for interest, giving the focal point sharper definition than background elements. He also included an exercise in painting with a limited palette ( two primaries ) to create harmony of color and deliberate thought of mixing to achieve a result that doesn’t rely on a quick grab of a tube.

I gained lots of insight into these important tenets of a good painting. Bruce starts a blank canvas by visually selecting his subject with a view catcher, then gives himself points on his canvas as reference.

He then loosely draws basic placements of his objects with a sienna wash. At this point, he blocks in his darks. So up to this point I was nodding eagerly ( I can do this, I get this …). Add some lights for a visually arresting composition. Still with ya’ Bruce.

Then the scientific adage of oil and water………

Even with a Sta- Wet Palette, my paint puddles dried before I could dip into them again. Every color had to be re-mixed over and over which creates two problems- a painting that takes forever, and colors that are always off.

Landscapes were impossible for me. I was cautioned by Nancy Moskovitz, well, she actually wished me ” Good Luck ” and said to work fast. Fast and good are not always best friends.

What do I do? I did quick studies of fruit, using the one stroke at a time method that he showed us to really ” see ” the warm and cool, light and shade.

I love the way oils look when working with them- the subtleties of color range and staying power of pools you can keep referring to. But how do I negate drawers full of acrylics. re-tool in oils and all their sidekicks, and justify it? The smell of turp, the safe disposal of toxic liquids on this little island?

I humbly bow deeply and respectfully to plein air painters while I ponder where to go with all this.

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26 Responses to “I’m no Plein Jane”

  1. justwilliams Says:

    I experienced exactly the same problem with acrylics a few years ago and nearly gave up completely. instead I changed to Winsor and Newton, “Artisan” water-mixable oils (there are other brands) and have stayed with them. No turps fumes to speak of and you can wash your brushes in water (for best results use a little ordinary soap as well). I still have a full complement of acrylics, brushes etc., plus the same again for the oils. I would suggest synthetic brushes, rather than hogs which do not like constant exposure to water.

    Your “one-stroke-at-a-time” exercises with the fruit seem to me to be an excellent idea and I must try it. If I am half as successful as you have been (especially with the pear) I will very happy. Keep up the good work!

  2. bonnieluria Says:

    Thanks Just W for reading, commiserating and taking the time to add your suggestions here. I have read about water based oils ( oxymoronic?) and I might just give them a try.

    I might also just be an indoors kind of painter where my palette does stay reasonably wet. Don’t know yet.

    PS- Loved meeting lucky Henry on your blog! He’s a charmer.

  3. Bill Sharp Says:

    Bonnie, Congratulations on getting outside to paint!

    I don’t know anything about acrylics but, in my opinion, oils are not as bad as you seem to be saying. If you start out with a limited palette, you can get away with 5 or 6 tubes of paint. I use odorless mineral spirits (ODM) which don’t smell up the place (although I must admit I kind of like the smell of turpentine. The linseed oil in the paint has some odor but I like that too. As far as getting rid of toxic materials, I haven’t had to do that at all. I use a container with a strainer for the ODM. the used paint settles out and I can easily pour off the clean ODM leaving the sludge in the bottom. I dump the sludge into a plastic tub and leave it open in a well ventliated area and as clean ODM comes to the top I pour that back into my brush cleaner. Once the sludge is completely settled, you have a dried cake of grey paint that can go in the regualr garbage.

    I haven’t tried the water soluble oils either but I’ve heard they work very similarly to regular oils.

    Don’t give up.

  4. bonnieluria Says:

    Bill- so nice to see you visiting here and leaving your very encouraging description of disposal and handling of sludge.
    I have to admit that I had oil paint envy during the entire workshop.
    I’m being gently coaxed into doing just what you suggested- a limited palette and some trials just for reacquainting myself with the medium that I recall with a sigh from art school days many years ago.
    Thanks so much for the kind words- it makes a big difference to me.

    I kinda feel about water soluble oils the way I do about low fat ice cream. If you’re going to have it, have the real thing.
    I’ll let you know how it goes.

    PS- your recent Beehive painting is a big motivator to me. I love your colors and brave brush strokes.

  5. Jo-Ann Says:

    Bonnie – I use acrylics all the time outside in a semi-tropical environment and sometimes it is a challenge. Just remember that the acrylics are not and won’t act like oils or watercolor. They are different and must be treated differently. The sta-wet palette is a good start. Spray the paint with water on top, too, frequently. Mix somewhere else–I use pie plates, so you’re not drying out your paint supply. For me it works by scrubing the paint onto the canvas rather than place each stroke. It’s almost like sculpting and building rather than laying in using first the darks and then the lights to build form. That way the slight variations in color add almost a pastel-like harmony rather than become discordant.

    Anyway, looks like you did fine and had a great time. Love the pear! Sounds like a wonderful workshop and thanks to Bill for the oil sludge method! Jo-Ann

  6. bonnieluria Says:

    Jo-Ann, Thanks so much for your valuable and lengthy advice here. Ever since I saw your vibrant and beautiful Florida landscapes on Sue Smiths’ blog, I kept your work in mind when I signed up for this course. I only wish you had been there too!
    I’m so used to painting figurative subjects that it was a tough transition to get the outdoor colors to my liking, while doing it quickly.
    But it was fun, it introduced me to the peer concepts of learning from watching others and the constructive critiques at the days’ end.
    Working alone is what I usually do, but change is necessary too.
    If you liked the pear, that’s a good barometer for me.
    I check your site regularly to get out of my own way and be inspired.
    Thanks again for your contribution here.

  7. Kathy Law Says:

    Bonnie, these are sweet studies! The second one especially has a very nice feel about it. I feel your pain about acrylics, I tried them and don’t like them. For me the biggest drawback is that they darken as they dry. I think of painting as being a sort of conversation with the medium, and if it says one thing and then changes after the fact, that feels dishonest to me. Just my $.02. I don’t use turps at all, in fact no solvents. I used to use Bill’s method, which works great, but I’ve adapted everything to use only oil for dilution and cleaning, followed by soap (Dawn works great). This system won’t work for people who do a very thin wash underpainting that they want to dry quickly, but it works well for me.

  8. bonnieluria Says:

    Thank you Kathryn for your input here. So do I understand it then, that you use paints undiluted, right out of the tube?
    And when you say oil for dilution, what kind of oil are you referring to?
    Then how do you clean your brushed in between colors ( perhaps you have one for darks, one for lights and just wipe )
    The other painters in our workshop used odorless mineral spirits and no linseed or damar as it takes too long to dry.
    I welcome any tips you’d offer- I think I’m going to get about 8 basic colors to start with and give it a shot before buying an outdoor easel. They get expensive ( looked at the EasyL which our teacher had – very nice tripod ) and I want to see how I take to this after 38 years of not using oils!

    Thanks for your comments – I love looking at your work and your notations on them.
    I really appreciate this community of helpers/artists so willing to share and commiserate and encourage.
    It’s made a huge difference to me.

  9. Kathy Law Says:

    You’re very welcome! Yes, some brands are thicker and pastier than others, so you can get a texture that you really like if you try some different ones. And if they’re a little thick, I just use straight linseed oil (or a 50/50 mix of linseed and stand oil) to thin them a tad. The thing I love about oil paint is that it’s pigment and natural oil, whereas acrylics are petroleum-based. There are toxics connected to both, though with oils I feel that most are avoidable. I do use some cadmiums, but mainly just non-toxic pigments.
    You’re right, I usually have one brush for dark colors, one for light, and dip them in linseed oil and wipe well with a rag or paper towel when I change colors.
    Yes, if those painters in your workshop were using thin washes for underpainting, that pretty much has to be done with thinner, unless you apply the paint thinly with a rag…OR, here’s another possibility. You can do a thin wash underpainting in acrylic, let that dry, then paint on it with oils. I often tone canvases with acrylic wash over acrylic gesso, then paint in oil on that. Works great.
    To speed drying, I have used Daniel Smith Alkyd medium, and have also used that as a finish coat instead of varnish (which Daniel Smith tells you not to do, since it’s not UV-protected). That also can be cleaned off your brush with oil and then soap and water.
    Yes, the outdoor easels are costly. I just got my EasyL with tripod, and it seems great.
    Give yourself plenty of time to get used to how the oils operate, since it’ll be a change. For cleanup when you’re all done, you can just use canola oil or any cheap oil, because you’re just going to wash it out of the brush. Dip and wipe a bunch of times then wash with Dawn or other detergent and warm water. 🙂

  10. judylobo Says:

    Plein and simple – I love your entries and long for more…..

  11. Carol King Says:

    Wow, all this talk reminds me of science class. But not matter what, I love your work.

  12. Frank Gardner Says:

    Hi Bonnie. Yes, working plein air with acrylic can be hard. I like to pre mix a lot of colors on my palette first, so it is impossible.
    Sometimes when traveling and I don’t want the car or room to smell like turps, I use safflower oil to wash my brushes. It cleans them fairly well and with a wipe of the towel it is enough. I also try and have a few brushes going at once. I clean them later with soap and water. Safflower oil is in most oil paints anyway, at least winsor newton. So, it is fine to have some on your brush and use as medium. It dries slowly though if you put too much.

  13. Nancy Moskovitz Says:

    Bonnie, thanks so much for the nod on your blog. I too love our “community.”
    Thank you also for introducing me to Bruce Williamson who gave a Jacksonville, FL workshop just before yours.

    I love your pears.

    You may want to sleep on your decision regarding trying oils until the glow of the workshop has passed. That said, you can have your oils and keep your acrylic work going too! nancy

  14. bonnieluria Says:

    Hi Nancy and welcome back. I keep checking your palm tree painting to figure out how to work in acrylic and still feel the malleability of the paints. To watch paint remain wet in the palette for hours was something I longed for.
    I haven’t bought any oils yet- I am doing just what you suggested and sleeping ( for a few days ) on the decision. Even with a limited palette, the paints are quite expensive. I hate to make an impulsive leap and then regret it.

    Speaking of Bruce, had you taken his workshop or only met him through this mention here?
    He’s going to come back here next year- maybe we can lure you too!?

  15. bonnieluria Says:

    Thanks Frank for the advice- same idea as what Kathryn Law told me to do as well.
    Do I take it then, that you don’t clean off your brushes while painting with a turp or mineral spirits rinse? And that you only use safflower oil as a medium and not linseed oil and damar varnish?
    This is like asking 6 top chefs for their version of sauce- everyone has their own recipe!

    Thank you for taking the interest and giving me some ideas.

  16. bonnieluria Says:

    Kathryn- thank you for taking the time and effort to write back a very nicely detailed how-to on oils/what to add/ and how to clean brushes. Same advice as what Frank Gardner suggested.

    I am getting closer to wanting to try- I just ordered some new brushes by mail order, which is how I have to buy everything, given where I live.
    After that, I think I’m going to consider about 8 basic colors in oil and just give it a go.

    I keep checking your blog for beautiful and inspiring new postings. Very inspiring to me.

  17. Frank Gardner Says:

    Hi again Bonnie. About the safflower oil. I ONLY use that if I am traveling and don’t want to stink up the car for the others, leave a jar of turps locked in a hot car for a long time, flying. Then I use it to clean the brushes and the little that is left on the brush mixes well with the paint, no problem.
    Otherwise, I am a turps guy and rinse my brushes to clean them. I will either use turps to thin the paint a bit or liquin as a dryer and medium. In the studio sometimes I use a mix of turps, stand oil and damar, but I never take that out with me plain air painting. I like to travel light.
    Hope that cleared up any vagueness on my part.

  18. Linda Blondheim Says:

    Don’t give up on acrylics too fast. Acrylics improved my brushwork with oils greatly in fact. Don’t think of them in terms of blending like oils, but instead, a process of many layers with close value transitions. More of a pointalist technique, so that the eye is fooled into thinking they are blended.

    If you decide to use oils too, that wuld be great. Not a lot of expense really. I use a limited palette with oils of about 6 colors and that’s all I need.

    I also use gouache, which is a terrific plein air medium with some advantage over acrylics.

    Enjoy painting, that’s the main thing.

  19. bonnieluria Says:

    Linda, thanks for your helpful explanation of the perception of using acrylics in a different way. I understand what you’re depicting here.
    Funny, your comment arrived here just as I was investigating oil painting/mediums/techniques on Wikihow. It’s very easy to feel pulled in two directions and I think my only concern with oils is the fume factor when the air gets hot and still here.
    I loved your final bit of advice- just enjoy painting!
    Thanks so much for dropping in and adding to my decision making.
    I’m a great admirer of your work.

  20. Paz Says:

    What an interesting learning experience it sounds like you had with the workshop. I love your paintings of the fruits. Thanks for stopping by my blog and your very kind comments. I’d love to read about how (why?) you decided to make the change from one island to another. How you made that transition. I have a feeling it’s a very interesting story. I’ve never been to St. Croix before. Must be very nice.

    Happy painting!

  21. marilynmking Says:

    Thanks for stopping by my humble little corner of cyberspace. I’ve viewed and read most all your posts and all these recent comments and feel totally spent, like an introvert after a wild and noisy party. Sounds like you live a very enchanted and full life! What a wonderful place to live as an artist. The only drawback, I guess, is that you seldom get the chance to search for the hidden beauty in average everyday things. LOL
    This discussion of plein air and oils is very interesting. Workshops can dictate a certain approach to creating from life, but artists have been putting their own spin on it for hundreds of years. Many impressionists only made sketches or watercolor paintings outside and used these as a launching off point for their studio work. Visit a great artist Alex Perez in Chili ( http://perezart.blogspot.com/ ) who shares his many sketches and studies from around the world and then see his expressive finished impressionistic work from those field studies. You don’t have to use oils for the plein air work is the point!
    If you do want to give it a try, though, Kevin Macpherson’s book “Oil Paintings with Light and Color” is a good one to start with for plein air and landscapes. He uses a limited palette and discusses so much info about mixing color and and shapes and edges and composition and plein air set up all in one book that comes in paperback. Visit Jennifer Young’s blog ( http://jenniferyoung.com/blog/ ) for a good discussion and comparison on plein air easels. One other thing to mention is your “stay wet” palette can be utilized in the studio for oil paints too. I bought a piece of window glass at Home Depot ( if you have one on the Island) the exact size of the box and mix all my paint on the glass. At the end of the day I seal it with the lid and my paint can last several days. To clean I use a razor blade scraper and paper towel with a little of turps. Works great!
    You do wonderful paintings and I’m not surprised that your recent show was so successful. I heard on the radio today someone said they always tell their children to be careful – when you experience a high in life, an accomplishment or event, that it is usually followed by a period of low. That’s often the ebb and flow of life and very natural. That was brought to mind when I read of your “wall” post. I’ve experienced it this last week or two after my “up” of my plein air experience. I just feel a bit stalled. But it’s temporary and that I KNOW. Hope that helps.

  22. bonnieluria Says:

    Wow Marilyn- you are fantastic to put so much into this comment. No wonder you were peeved to see it disappear. I’m going to seriously digest all of this and get re-focused.
    Thank you Thank you.
    You’ve helped me more than I can say.
    The length and content of your comment here is worthy of framing!

  23. Sue Says:

    Hooray! Great post. I’m so jealous. Not only do you live in a fantastic place, get to go to workshops, but you also get tons of comments and support on your posts and I think that’s so great – love the pear. Can’t really add anything useful here, looks like most of the bases have been covered with good advice. I’m fond of oils, of course, but I must confess to having several plastic shoe boxes filled with old acrylics and watercolors in the off chance I do an abrupt about face and go back to working that way. I just hope the paint doesn’t dry out in the tubes!

  24. bonnieluria Says:

    Sue- jealous?????? You are in need of mental floss my very talented, intelligent, inspired friend!
    Your work speaks for you.
    And anything you added to my pages would be welcomed and beneficial.
    Your blog Ancient Artist is an encyclopedia of creative thinking, provocative questioning, and of course, your stunning paintings.
    Love having your visits here.
    PS- I’m still undecided about the change- and look at Jo-Ann Sanborns’ great site every day, thanks to you, to see how another talented artist works those acrylics……

  25. Sharon Crute Says:

    Umm, Bonnie, I thought you WERE working in oils. You’ve captured the energetic brushstrokes, light, and luscious modeling of oils – but in acrylics! And your color is rich, not acidic.. Some artists have this ability to work acrylics in such a delicious manner. As a fan of your sensuous work, whatever you’re working is working.

  26. bonnieluria Says:

    Sharon- your words are soooo very meaningful to me. For all my lamenting, the one area I feel pretty comfortable with is mixing colors and their relationships ( years of textile designing does that ).
    It’s possible to use acrylics like oils- just needs more patience and deft layering.

    I can’t express enough how I appreciate your interest and positive words, given how big a fan of yours I am.

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