Friday, September 20, 2013

Composition: plein air seascape in oil

When painting on location, there often isn't time to mess around with composing a scene.

If you have plenty of light left in the day, it can be very handy to knock out a couple of one-minute thumbnail sketches to see what presents itself as a strong composition. But as sunset draws near, those couple of minutes become precious. And you don't necessarily have a lot of different shaped boards to choose from when you're out and about so your composition options are limited from the outset.

This evening I headed back to the coast (almost 70km away) to see if I could do another cloud painting. We've had heavy cloud all day, not ideal conditions for painting either clouds or sunlight, but I decided to take the chance.

I arrived at Mutton Bird Beach about an hour-and-a-half before sunset and looked around for possible paintings. I did a few thumbnails but the light was dreadful so I continued looking around the area since I've not spent much time there before.

After walking a couple of kilometres down a four-wheel-drive track, and finding a spectacular location for future paintings, I headed back to the car park about half-an-hour before sunset.

The sky had cleared dramatically and Shelter Island was almost-glowing in the evening light. I knew it wouldn't last.

I quickly set up my easel, grabbed a board and began painting as soon as I could. Composition was the least of my concerns, I just wanted to record the sunlight. I didn't even stop to take a photo to use as a reference later, if I needed it.

I wanted to get rid of the white of the board so I could lay in some of the sunlight colours fairly accurately. I washed in major tones with paint so thin it was like watercolour - it's faster that way. Then I mixed up a couple of warm colours for the sunlit shrubs and rocks and roughed out those areas.

The island enjoyed sunlight for about five minutes after I began painting then the sun dropped behind a bank of clouds. With the sunlit image pretty clear in my mind, I continued painting even though everything was now in shadow.

In some respects, it was probably handy that the sunlight had gone because I wouldn't be teased by the scene changing colour every couple of minutes, as happens at that time of the day, and I could stick with the colour decisions I'd already locked in. I also had to not be distracted by the amazing stuff going on in the western sky (it was a gorgeous sunset).

I packed up when I realised it was so dark, I couldn't really tell what colour I was using anymore.

Shelter Island, Mutton Bird, Albany. Pleion air seascape by Andy Dolphin.
 Shelter Island. 
Plein air sketch. 30x25cm oil on board.
© Andy Dolphin

Palette: French ultramarine, cadmium scarlet, cadmium yellow light, titanium white.

The painting is pretty rough. Some of the paint is so thin, I don't think it could be considered archival, so I can't sell it. I also think the composition is pretty boring. But I really like the main area of light and shade so I took a quick photo and messed around in Photoshop to see what compositional possibilities there were.

Plein air oil seascape compositions.

I particularly like the intimacy of option number two and think I might head back to the location with that composition in mind as my starting point. And, with half the problem already solved, I could probably do a larger painting and take a little more time by starting earlier in the day.

Over the last couple of years, my attitude to plein air work has changed - and continues to change. I used to only paint if the light was perfect and likely to remain stable and if I was pretty sure I'd get a finished painting from a session. I'd usually spend two hours or more on one painting on location.

These days, I'm forcing myself to be more adventurous. I head out when it's cloudy, I start paintings late in the day when stable light is not just unlikely, it's impossible. I paint fast and I end up with whatever I end up with. Sometimes I get a result that's worth framing, sometimes I need to do some touching-up in the studio for a frameable result and other times I scrape the painting, or let it dry then throw it in the corner, with all the other "could-a-beens".

Quite a few of the paintings I've posted on this blog are in that pile because the blog isn't about great art but the pursuit of art. I'm pretty fussy about what I actually let out of the door and into the market place.

But the "failures" still have value, even if it's just from the act of getting out and painting - and that is possibly the most valuable part of the experience. It's taken me a long time to realise just how important it is to just get out there and paint and "bugger the consequences".

Twelve months ago, or even six months ago, I would not have thrown the easel in the car on a day like today. I would have looked out at the grey sky and decided to give painting a miss. As it turned out, I took the chance, went for the drive and had an amazing afternoon.

I still struggle with painting when there's no clear sunlight and shadow, but that can be next year's project.


  1. why not short cut months or years of mucking about and go to the ultimate in bad light straight off, absolute total darkness :)

    I have heaps of reference photos if you want to borrow some

  2. Someone's already done that. It's about 1.2m square and hanging in the Perth Art Gallery.

  3. well i can honestly that i havent seen it as i havent been there in years, its waaay toooo expensive to get in, so the idea was totally mine, i was just to late

    but Barb is now reminding me we had discussed it, so maybe i have been influenced, sigh

  4. oh i would go with 2 but i would of liked more beach at the bottom :)
    Barb liked 4, their is no accounting for taste

  5. I was 20-30m up so there was no beach. But a lower viewpoint, with some foreground, might be interesting.

    Now all I have to do is to learn to float in mid-air :)

  6. umm???
    its a painting
    you can cheat
    and add what you want
    its not photography :)