Taking Notes: a weekend plein air workshop

"Whatever it is you want to do is already waiting for you to find it."  --Adriano Farinella

This is me, in heaven...

This is me, in heaven...

On Saturday morning, I walked downtown to Adriano Farinella's studio in Easton, carrying my French easel, a folding table, and a backpack filled with art supplies.  Despite the heaviness of everything I carried, I felt as if I were floating in the clouds; I was so excited to spend the whole weekend painting outdoors.  I had a strong intuition that I would learn a lot.

At the studio, Adriano helped me streamline my collection of plein air gear, making it much lighter.  Then off we drove to a lock along the Lehigh Canal, not far away from downtown Easton, but refreshingly green and bucolic.  We painted scenes of the water, trees, and sky.

Here is Adriano's sketch of the same scene, also oil on gessoboard.  

In order to create my painting of the canal, I learned a new, valuable technique called a "Notan Sketch" which is a quick, small sketch that establishes the composition, and reduces the values to only two.  A "less is more" mentality comes in handy here.  It helped me to go a step further and eliminate values altogether.  I forced myself to keep everything as simple, straight, and geometric as possible.  I got something abstract like this:

These are the bones of the painting, "Morning on the Lehigh Canal."

These are the bones of the painting, "Morning on the Lehigh Canal."

And here is the final painting, the bones fleshed out:

My painting, "Morning on Lehigh Canal" oil on gessoboard, 9x12''

During the painting workshop, I was able to identify one of my weaknesses as an artist.  In previous landscapes, I had been really punching up the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, immediately going for the darkest darks in every dark place in the scene.  I did this to make a powerful, attractive painting that people admired, and also to cover up for my weaknesses as an artist.  Mainly, I wasn't able to get the spirit of the landscape in subtler ways.  So I painted it bam, pow, wham! style.

"Sunlight in the Cemetery" is an example of my bam! pow! wham! style.  I still like this painting, in the same motherly way that I am fond of all my painting, but you can see how I rely on an extreme use of darkest darks and lightest lights. 

Working on learning to use value in a more mature and subtle way was like learning a whole new language of painting.  I also learned a different way of looking at my subject, of holding and using the paintbrush, and of organizing the thoughts in my mind.  My brain felt all stretched out from so much learning in so short a time!

Me, working on "View from Clear Spring Farm."  Clamps from Home Depot proved invaluable in holding the gessoboard onto the easels in the face of the wind.

Me, working on "View from Clear Spring Farm."  Clamps from Home Depot proved invaluable in holding the gessoboard onto the easels in the face of the wind.

On Sunday, we went to Clear Spring Farm to paint.  The kind owners, Terry and Dave, let us go up on a hill way behind the barn.  This hill seemed to be on top of the world.  There were vistas all around; it was incredible.  All day long the sun shone down and autumn wind blew all around us. 

Adriano, painting the distant hills from our perch on top of the world at Clear Spring Farm.

As I painted, Adriano told me it's helpful to think, "I'm not here to make a painting.  I'm here to take notes."  This takes an enormous amount of pressure off, and allows me the freedom to develop my skill without feeling like I need to produce something finished.

"View from Clear Spring Farm" oil on gessoboard, 9x12''

At some point, you have to let go, and allow the painting to happen.  "Think about values, not trees, and trust," advised Adriano.  "It will take form.  The tree will take form."  

There is a deeper meaning in the painting than just faithful reproduction of a lovely landscape.  There is a dimension of spirit, of feeling, and of getting at what it feels like to look at the scene before you.  It doesn't have to be perfect.  

It could be that the painting is guiding me, the artist. 

"Listen to what the painting wants," said Adriano, "And just follow it."

"Sunlit Hill" oil on gessoboard, 9x12''

"Sunlit Hill" oil on gessoboard, 9x12''