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Monochromatic Plein Air Painting in Lake County, California

My husband Nowell and I spent this week at a country retreat a couple hours north of San Francisco, in Lake County. We rent a little house there that is on 80 fences acres, with private hiking trains and gorgeous views to rival the Hudson River Valley… although quite a bit drier and hotter this time of year.

I LOVE working with my Open Box M palette, Manfrotto tripod, and Manfrotto arm with the Julian Umbrella. 

I looked at my old post about this and realized a lot of the links are broken, so here it is updated:

Extra tip: Carry most the items to your painting site in a backpack. Then, when you are set up and the backpack is empty, fill it with a couple hefty ROCKS and hang it from a clamp on the tripod. It makes your whole setup very stable even in a swift breeze.

 I decided ahead of time to try for some discipline on my plein air studies by focusing on value, and painting with only monochromatic colors. So I did not even pack any colored paint, and tried to see how much I could get out of just Transparent Oxide Brown, Ultramarine Blue, and Titanium white.

My first painting was supposed to be a “simple” tree study. Of course, trees are very, very hard to capture the drawing issues of gesture and structure, much like painting the human figure. I spent so much time trying to draw the sahpes of the branches that I had a hard time trying to get the feeling of the filtered backlit sunlight through the leaves.

Having a dog for company is the best way to paint outdoors! Ripley is used to hanging out with me at the studio, and so she was happy to settle down to hang out with me. It was hot though, and even in the shade she panted and could not get comfortable. So one day I decided to leave her back at the house… but Nowell said she cried and whined at the door while I was gone. So from now on she gets to come along no matter the weather.

For my second painting I decided to stand further back and try to capture the overall shape of a different tree and its environment and lighting.

The midafternoon sun was hidden by hazey clouds by the time I took a ohoto of the scene, but I was done with the sketch.

I felt like that painting got too opaque, so for my 3rd painting I painted with very thin, dry, brown paint, and used white only minimally.

I thought that would be my last painting of the trip, but at the end of the day I was inspired to try a quick sketch of a little grove of trees lit from the front by the late afternoon sun.

The previous paintings took 2-3 hours each, but in this scene the shadows shifted quickly and I only had about 30 minutes before the effect was lost completely, but it was fun to try to capture the feeling of the late-day summer light.

My setup on the last day of our trip. I’m looking forward to coming back with colors on another trip!


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Reader Comments (2)

I have already posted my comments on facebook....but will repeat...I have never learned so much in fourdays as I did on a workshop a few years ago in Sarasota Forida. Sadie is not only an exceptional artist but a dedicated teacher...every time you see or hear about something she has done, you learn...thank you Sadie..

September 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersandy bogert

Hi Sadie - enjoyed looking at your paintings. I recently took a workshop with Kathleen Dunphy in Murphys, first time I had ever painted in plein air. Challenging and frustrating to say the least! However, I definitely see the benefits in terms of really understanding light and how it functions (as opposed to studio painting). As a seascape painter living in the Sacramento area, I will try to get out to the coast some time to do some plein air painting....I know it will improve my studio paintings!


December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve
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