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Summer Plein Air: Chasing The Light

Summer in Texas, where I live and work, is never the best outdoor painting time. Extreme heat and incredibly harsh, searing daylight add degrees of difficulty to the plein air process, to speak nothing of the extra extreme summer of heat we've been having this year.

But I did manage to get outdoors and paint a few times lately–thanks to some great friends providing an extra bit of motivation–for a much needed dose of artistic nature time.

First was a quick sunset sprint at a local overlook, on a very hot and hazy evening. The air was so thick that the scene looked foggy, and this moisture in the air diffused the dusk light nicely into a wash of pastel hues. I blocked in the basics of the distant river bend for an hour on my 8 x 10 inch panel before the sun disappeared on us, disregarding the slower detailed areas of juniper trees in the extreme foreground. After letting the painting dry for a few days, these were then rendered in a 2 hour studio session along with some pastel glazes in the sky to saturate the sunset effect.

oil painting of a hazy sunset overlooking Lago Vista, Texas
"Dusk Over Lago Vista", oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2023

During our next outing, shade was a requirement as it was late morning and the sun was already in full blast, warming up to another triple digit temperature day. We chose a lowland trail snaking alongside a dry creek bed under cover of thick live oak, juniper, hackberry, and pecan trees. Hoping for a small waterfall that feeds into the creek, we soon realized that with our region's severe drought status that was a pipedream, and settled for a little shaded clearing opening up to the dry creek bed next to the trail. The summer death rays of the sun puncturing the canopy created a perfect opportunity for some fun lighting effects–quite the opposite of the previous outing's diffused hazy ones.

We painted for approximately 3 hours, in which time I got a thorough block-in of the detailed scene accomplished on another 8 x 10 inch panel, knowing that once again I would spend another 2 hours in the studio after it had dried, completing the effects of light and shadow, warm and cool, with a glaze layer. This level of realist subtlety in atmospheric affects simply is not possible with the alla prima technique of single-session plein air painting, as the optical combination of translucent color sitting on top of opaque color is what creates the more convincing illusion of depth that our eye perceives in a painting.

oil painting of a dry creek bed and live oak tree with bright spots of sunshine in Austin, Texas
"Dry Creek Bed, River Place", oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2023

When I’m scouting a painting location I’m always looking for a focal point, a primary feature of the environment or lighting that will interest a viewer more than a mere factual recording of a place and time. There are always time constraints imposed on an outdoor painting and sometimes you settle for a mundane scene (without a waterfall...) that needs to be made more interesting by focusing on what the light is doing, emphasizing color or atmosphere beyond what is observed but still within the bounds of convincing realism. That’s what happened here. The serpentine tree shapes were interesting but beyond that, the white hot dappled light on shaded rocks was going to be the real star of the show, with a little coaxing.

P.S.– Here's a bonus miniature 5 x 7 inch wave study from a trip to Miami Beach earlier in the summer, completed in the same 2-session manner as the aforementioned pieces.

oil painting of a cresting wave in Miami Beach, Florida
Oil on Panel, 5 x 7 inches, 2023

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1 Comment

Nick, your three paintings are magnificent! Your gift of painting continues to unfold in joyous dimensions.

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