Demonstration: Study to Studio

Quiet Cove 12x16 Oil

Plein air painting is a great way to fine-tune your observational skills and to “capture the moment.” But with the time limitation of outdoor painting—usually no more than 90 minutes—many important aspects of the painting process sometimes get ignored. When the painting session is over, you can see where you may have rushed things: your design may be ill-considered; color-mixing, haphazard; and your brush work, sloppy. Although it’s tempting to say, “I’ll just fix all that in the studio,” not all things can be fixed easily, or at all.

A better way to work is to start a new studio painting based on that study. In the studio, time and space are yours to control.

For me, painting on-location is very straightforward. You go out, pick something to paint, and then you paint it. Simple. But taking that sketch to the studio and creating Art out of it, well, that is a different matter. Where do you start? What’s the process? How do you avoid ending up with just a boring copy of your field sketch? In my book, Outdoor Study to Studio: Take Your Plein Air Painting to the Next Level, I demonstrate several different methods. I’d like to share one of these with you here.

For “Quiet Cove,” I went on location twice and painted two studies, focusing mostly on color so I’d have good color references. I also took some photos, which would help me with detail and design.

Field Study for “Quiet Cove” 9x12 Oil

Back in the studio, using a reference photo, I created a design that I felt worked. (I used vine charcoal on sketch paper and worked my way through some “notan” studies.)

Notan in Charcoal

I then transferred the design to the painting surface. (I used a 3x3 grid and 2B graphite pencil.)

Design Transferred

Referring back to the photo, I refined the design. (I used the pencil and looked for dynamic lines and rhythms, and then I gave the design a quick spray of workable fixative. I also added the extra rocks and shadow in the lower left.)

Next, I put away the photo and took out the color sketch that I felt best represented the color I’d seen.

My Studio Set-up:  Photo on Tablet, Notan on Easel,
Color Study on Secondary Easel

Referring only to the color sketch, I blocked in the simple shapes with my “best guess” to approximate the colors in the sketch. (I used a big brush and my split-primary oil palette.)

Best-Guess Block-in, Using Just the Color Study for Reference

Then I went back and adjusted my “best guess”—and kept adjusting it until is got as close as I could get it to the sketch. Sometimes you find yourself in a place with a better color scheme and harmony. My advice, though: Don’t be tempted to go back the photo! Don’t add detail!

Adjusting my Best Guess, Again Using Just the Color Study for Reference


Once I was satisifed with the color, I pulled out the photo.

Photo Reference and Color Study Together

I used the photo as a reference for refining the profiles and contours of shapes. I also used it for establishing any lights and darks that got away from you in the underpainting. (I used a smaller brush for all of this.) If there was an important “detail” that I needed—and I made sure that I really did need it—I made a note of it in paint. (For example, I used it for placement of cracks in the rocks.)

More Adjustments, Using the Photo as a Reference

At this point, I put away the photo for good.

Referring to my color sketch, I revisited my colors and made any color adjustments. (They were and should be very minor at this point.)

Finally, I sharpened and softened edges, added highlights or accents. (As my friend Albert Handell says, “Orchestrate the painting.” Make it sing!)

You’ll note how little I actually used the photo. Basically, the photo is useful only for the initial design, for refining shape contours and adding any important details. I don’t refer to it at all for color. It’s very useful to understand when to use the photo and when to use the field sketch.

Finished Version:  “Quiet Cove” 12x16 Oil

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