As I developed with oils, it became obvious that I was constrained by the studio. Working from a digital image and memory and imagination does not capture mood. The perspective is distorted by the lens. The memory and imagination lose detail. The colors are invented.
Talking to an artist I greatly admire, Randall Cogburn, he said I should try plein air painting. “You see a lot!” But I was shy, lacking in confidence, inexperienced, afraid of failure, etc. Pick an excuse. I sat in on one of Randall Cogburn’s painting demos. In just four hours, he produced a marvelous painting that I would die for. I thought to myself, “I need to paint like that if ever I am to do plein air painting!”
I went home and did three paintings in a row while the memory of his technique was still in my mind. Each painting took just a matter of hours. I was pleased with the results. I had never painted so well in such a short amount of time. I entered them into our next member show, and two of the three sold!
I got myself rigged up for plein air painting. I bought a Julian French easel. I’ve heard some artist complain that these are too clumsy. And I’ve seen and considered other arrangements. But I like this easel. It works well for me.
I found that I don’t like holding a palette while I paint. So I made a glass-top palette that I can affix to a lightweight camera tripod I happen to have. It
works great and is easy to clean and keeps my one hand free. For my first plein air painting, I picked an easy subject matter: the beach. Just horizon, sky, surf, and sand. No objects, no intricate details.
I was filled with trepidation. Suppose I find out I’m no kind of artist at all? Suppose I can’t produce a good painting on the spot? I started and for the first two hours, I was doubtful. But then I started to see something. It was working, and after four hours I had painted a beach scene as I had never painted before.
Randall was right. You see a lot. I didn’t have to make up colors. Painting quickly and on the spot forces decisions that keep the painting
moving along. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I found myself developing techniques that created certain visual effects instead of trying to create these directly. I call this “indirect painting.”
Elation took the place of trepidation. Yes, once again, I had to relearn the lesson that we all learn as we go through life. Don’t back down, challenge yourself, leave your comfort zone, and never be satisfied. Always strive to do better.
So we get better with practice, and now comes time for my annual road trip to Durango, Colorado. Except that this time, I planned to paint along the way.
Here are some things I consider when I set off to plein air paint. Try to be finished in four hours. After four hours, the day has advanced and the whole mood and atmosphere of the day have changed. So I use mostly 11-by-14 or 16-by-20 canvases. Smaller canvases, as a rule, don’t take as much time to paint. Pack sunscreen, bug spray, water, a snack. Wear a big straw hat.
On a road trip, I had to consider how to keep the painting safe while still wet. So I made frames ahead of time so as to plop the wet painting in its frame. Two wet canvases in their frames can be put safely face to face and strapped together. The paintings are perfectly secure and safe.
Allow time for painting. Instead of planning an eight-hour drive, plan a four to six-hour drive, leaving four hours for painting. Stay off the interstate. Take alternate routes. I had been doing this anyway on my road trips. Less traffic and more scenic.
When discerning where to stop and paint, consider safety and convenience. I look for a wide shoulder or a turnout. I look for a shade tree. Roadside picnic stops have all these things and are usually situated where there is a pleasant view.
My first road trip painting occurred last year in May in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. I was familiar with the area and knew that I wanted to paint these fantastic black reddish cliffs unique to the area. As I neared this location I was disconcerted that the outside temperature was over 90! How could I stand for four hours in that sun? But a huge shade tree with a turnout and picnic table appeared with a perfect view of just the cliffs I wanted to paint.
I painted four paintings on that trip. I repeated that road trip this year. The advantage is that I spotted painting stops on my last year’s trip that I am revisiting this year. So in some cases, I know where I’m going to stop and can plan my route accordingly.
This year I plan to do six paintings and so far have completed 3½. The half was called on account of rain. Some things you just can’t plan on.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Award-winning artist Leroy LeFlore has donated a large painting that will be auctioned during the Galveston Art League’s annual fundraiser gala, 6-10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, at the San Luis Resort Grand Ballroom, 5222 Seawall Blvd. in Galveston. Tickets and details: GalvestonArtLeague.com.