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  • Writer's pictureDanny McShane

Outside In? An Indoor Plein Air Demo.

Pin Mill Moorings, on Fontaine CP 22x15"

Stonehaven Art Club invited me to give a talk and demo on plein air watercolour and the puzzle was always going to be how to illustrate plein air watercolour indoors at night. 

Painting from a photo using the approach I'd use outside was going to be the only viable option, but I couldn't figure out how to display both the reference image and the work in progress to the audience. I'd imagined I'd have my back to them, and I was a bit wary of having to paint on a vertical easel (for visibility) as I usually paint at about 30 degrees or less and I'm used to managing the wet paint like that.

But I needn't have worried, they had a very clever setup with a split screen projector that allowed the reference photo to be projected, so the audience could see it, while a camera showed my live painting beside it with me painting on my board propped on a tabletop.. After giving a talk on plein air I used the approach and materials I use outside, with a half imperial (22x15") block of Fontaine 140lb paper, albeit on a table rather than a tripod. 

Camera Fu?

Clever Projector & Camera

I'd taken along a selection of photos for possible subjects and after a quick chat with a couple of the members we opted for a view of Pin Mill Moorings in Suffolk.

The Reference Photo, Google Earth

I'd hoped this wouldn't be too familiar an image (I'd already figured that Dunnotar Castle probably wasn't the image to go for in Stonehaven), and it wasn't just an urban sketch (though I do like street scenes) but it had trees and buildings and boats and clutter, which are things I often paint. I started off by indicating some simplifications I'd make and the order I'd tackle the picture. I'd put some pencil marks for key elements like the buildings and sea wall, the main boat hull and a dotted tree line just to give me my bearings rather than make a full sketch. I'd give the boat a simpler mast or two, then put in a cloudy summer sky and drop the trees in and use them to cut out the building outline, then put in the main boat hull while the trees dried and so on.

Work in progress.

I learned a few things, not least that talking and painting can make time pass very quickly, and that informed observers can generate a lot of stimulating discussion that takes more attention than casual comments from passers-by outside. And the 'muscle memory' I didn't know I'd developed from working so long with my usual tripod setup that has everything in its place was tripped up by having my kit laid out differently on a table. And my varifocals might be needing a variation as the table seemed an awfully long way away. I knew it was going to be an interesting demo when I started by picking up the wrong colour a few times, (though I do that outdoors quite often as well).

Time's up!

Anyhoo, all too soon it was time to wind up, so I downed tools and offered a critique of how I felt my painting had gone. I'd been painting for about 70 minutes. A few things had worked quite well and a few not so well at all, which was just like the 'real life' experience I was trying to demonstrate. I often find a painting can look quite disappointing to the 90% mark or beyond, and that the final brush strokes can make or mar it, sometimes turning it around from disaster.

Mid critique,. "...and I don't know what this bit is doing..."

I liked the colours, and the sky and overall layout, and the lighting, tonal range and perspective, but felt I hadn't done the main boat timbers nor the building anything like justice. I'd heavy handedly failed to preserve slivers of white paper for the sun catching some window frames and that would have really lifted the centre. In the closing minute I'd tried adding a few cast shadows (from something behind the viewer) across the hull to indicate its form a bit, but rather than help they confused things further. With a painting at this stage I'd normally let it dry and have a think. As it was we wound up for the night.

At home (next day) I lifted off some paint from buildings and hulls to give me scope to rework them a little., Fontaine is 100% cotton and quite a forgiving paper. From here...

Lifting off some colour for retouching

...I then repainted the main boat, lightening its masts with a stroke of gouache. The tyre and rope details were added to help indicate the form of the hull with their shadows. I also reinforced the tree shadows and used a little white gouache to reclaim some window frames. I should have lifted the shadow wash on the windows out instead, but that's hindsight for you. I didn't want to overwork anything. A few more impressionistic lines, spots and dashes to indicate the foreshore clutter and that was enough.

The End Result

Thanks to all at Stonehaven Art Club for having me, and to Lorna Crawford and Vilma Duguid for the use of their photos ( I forgot to take any!).

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