I recently returned from a beautiful getaway at Crystal Creek in New South Wales, Australia. My partner and I stayed in a villa nestled within the forest.
I used this as an opportunity to do some forest painting on location from the balcony of our villa. I usually paint from a studio, so this was an interesting experience for me.
Making Do with What is Available
One of the challenges of painting on location (plein air) is that you just have to make do with what is available. You probably won't be able to carry all your paints, brushes and other studio luxuries.
In my case, I brought just a handful of brushes and four colors, being titanium white, cadmium red, cadmium yellow and cobalt blue. These colors allowed me to mix most of the other colors I needed for my painting, but I certainly felt limited in terms of mixing secondary colors, particularly greens.
I placed an old sheet over the table on the balcony and set up my easel. I placed my paints on a disposal palette for ease of cleanup and I had some odorless solvent to add fluidity to the paint.
The light was far from perfect. I had to paint in the shade whilst my subject was in bright light - not ideal but I made do. If possible, you should always try to have the same light on your palette, painting and subject.
Let's just say I did not expect any masterpieces from this session!
Simplifying the Clutter
One of the main challenges of painting most forest landscapes is that there is so much going on. I certainly don't want to spend weeks trying to delicately render every branch and leaf. I need to simplify the clutter, without losing the overall feel of the forest. This is difficult, especially in really dense forests like the one I was in.
Here is what I was faced with (view from the balcony):
As you can imagine, this is not an easy landscape to paint within a limited time (my partner would not want me spending the whole holiday painting...).
I decided to incorporate part of the villa to give context to the painting. This allowed me to dramatically simplify the forest whilst retaining context.
Here are some of the other challenges I faced:
- There was a strong sense of perspective, which is not a forgiving area if you get it wrong.
- I needed to paint the reflections in the windows (a difficult subject to paint).
- I only had about an hour to paint (including set up time).
Quick Sketches to Prepare
I did some quick sketches before I picked up my brush to get a feel for the scene. I wanted to map out the perspective and see what the composition looked like on paper. This took about 15 minutes of sketching time over breakfast.
Capturing my Initial Impression
I needed to work fast because I only had an hour to work with and the light was constantly changing. It was important that I covered the canvas as quickly as possible based on my initial impression of the scene.
I worked my way around the canvas with thinned paint (oil paint plus lots of solvent) and blocked in the most basic color shapes. I kept my colors on the dark side, with the intention of going back over the painting with midtones and highlights. Getting to this point was only about 10-20 minutes of work.
Injecting Light into the Painting
After putting the basic foundation of the painting in place, I started to inject light into the painting. After all, the main point of interest of this scene was the beautiful light shooting through the tree canopy.
One of the problems I faced in doing this was I did not have a cool yellow on my palette. I only had cadmium yellow, which is a fairly warm yellow. Because of this, I was unable to mix any of those rich greens you typically see in nature. Something like cadmium yellow light would have been perfect, but I made do, knowing that I would be unable to hit that same likeness of the actual forest.
The end result is a relaxed painting full of light greens and yellows. It is a nice way to remember the holiday - much more important than a photo in my opinion.
Here are some of the key takeaways of this post:
- Always looks for ways to branch out. I usually paint in the studio, so I made an effort to start doing more painting on location.
- Paint challenging subjects. Even if it does not work out, you will probably learn something new. It will also stop you from stagnating and painting the same thing over and over again because it feels comfortable.
- Challenge yourself by painting with a limited palette, even if you know you will not be able to mix all the colors you will need.
- Quick sketches are incredibly useful for mapping out your idea before you commit your brush to canvas. If you are interested in doing more sketching, then you should check out my gesture drawing post.
- You can use paintings to document your life. Paintings do something photos cannot - they capture how you interpret a scene.