M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Friday, November 8, 2013

Conversations in the Field

Painting the view of Warm Springs, VA

Among the more amusing and enjoyable aspects of painting outdoors are the conversations that happen when someone stops to observe what I am doing, ask questions, and offer information about themselves. Those chats give me insight into general perceptions about art, common responses to my paintings, and views into the lives of people who travel a completely different paths through life.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable conversations took place while I was participating in the First Annual Bath County Plein Air Festival in October, 2013. I parked in a clearing along a state highway to paint the view of a cow farm, river, and distant mountains. After setting up my easel, the owner of the farm came to take care of a new calf and to chat with me. His only comment about my painting was that I recorded only one of the three peaks in the distant mountains. He watched as I corrected that grave omission.

Bath County Cattle Farm

The farmer was very proud of the fact that an artist found his land to be beautiful. After all, this was where he was raised, where his children grew up, and where he had worked every day of his life since he was a young boy. He wanted me to understand the challenges of maintaining a beautiful farm like his, from managing the land to raising the cattle. After the hour of chatting, I learned the names of every mountains, stream, and farm within my view; I was given two methods for curing diarrhea in cattle; and I learned about the market reports, livestock auctions, and Hee Haw programs broadcast over RFD-TV cable network. He didn't say much about my painting, but I think he learned something about my world from watching the picture take shape.

There were other aspects of this plein air event I didn't enjoy -- the competition to paint salable and award-winning paintings, the long days of painting and socializing, the anxiety during the opening night sale and awards presentation. For example, it bothered me when I was told the only collectors who would be interested in my painting of the local Presbyterian church would be members of that congregation. Nevertheless, I really appreciated the chance to talk with the other participating artists and the folks who stopped to ask questions and offer a glimpse into their lives. If I am invited back next year, those are the things I will look forward to.

Warm Springs Prebyterian Church

Friday, September 13, 2013

Painting Larger Canvases Outdoors

Among the challenges I set for myself this summer is to paint larger plein air landscapes -- 16" x 20" and 20" x 20". I wanted to find out if I would be satisfied with pieces that were more loosely brushed and suggestive, to hopefully satisfy collector looking to fill more wall space, and to have a few paintings that would be focal points of an exhibition. As a result doing 6-8 larger paintings, I have established a way of covering more canvas real estate in 3-4 hours on location, balanced detail with gestured brush strokes, and overcome the intimidation of a large white surface.

The 20" x 20" painting of the waterfall in Shenandoah National Park was a greater challenge than I anticipated, mostly because I stupidly took the wrong trail and wound up hauling about 40 pounds of gear for several miles down to the falls. Nevertheless my stupidity could be excused by the sequence of photographs showing its development and by the success of completing the painting. To make me feel better, a woman who lives and works inside the park said I painted her favorite location. At least I stumbled into a picturesque setting.

The completed 20" x 20" painting oil painting

The painting of the path through the trees was painted near the first parking area going north into Shenandoah National Park. The scene called for a clear separation between the cool greens on the left and in the background and the warm trees leading diagonally into the space. I would have worked on this a bit longer, but as often happens at that elevation a storm moved in quickly, thunder demanded my attention, and heavy rains forced me to pack up and head for cover.

Working on a 16" x 20" painting of Blenheim Vineyard

A 16" x 20" painting created in Shenandoah National Park

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Rural Landscape in Virginia

Here's some photos showing the progressive development of a farm scene I painted in the Shenandoah Valley. As always, I painted from the background to the foreground, and from the top of the 16" x 20" canvas to the bottom.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Favorite Plein Air Sites. A Friend Share His

Mark Collins of Charlottesville, VA (www.markcollinswatercolors.com) introduced me to one of his favorite outdoor painting sites today, private property at the top of a mountain above Crozet, VA. The temperature was about 15-degrees cooler than in the valley and the flowering trees were about two weeks behind those in lower elevations. There were spectacular views in all directions, but we set up down hill from top of the mountain so there would be less wind, and we both focused on the Blue Ridge Mountains that were dramatically lit by the light breaking through the clouds.

Mark is primarily a watercolorist, but he enjoys plein air painting in oil and often paints on the mountain, especially when a friend travels and asks him to take care of her place. He enjoys being alone with nothing much to do except paint the many views on the mountain, some intimate and some expansive. I'm looking forward to joining him again as the location is inspiring and give me a better sense of how vast and magnificent the landscape is in the Shenandoah Valley.

Mark Collins (left) and me painting on a mountain above Crozet, Virginia

My 16" x 20" oil painting of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Monday, May 6, 2013

When Plein Air Is a Start, Not a Finish

As I've been challenging myself to work larger on location -- up to 16" x 20" -- I get home with the paintings and immediately notice somethings that are obviously wrong or incomplete. The issues are usually about the range of values and their ability to convey the sense of space, or they relate to areas that aren't sufficiently developed. I find that I get so involved in covering the canvas it 2-3 hours, that I lose the ability to see the pictures objectivily. As I work on resolving those pictures in my studio, I remind myself there is nothing sacred about completing paintings on location. Plein air is a process of gaining inspiration and information from nature, but it isn't the only path to expressing what is observed.

Here's a sequential set of photographs of a painting I did recently on a hill overlooking Fishersville, VA. I'm still trying to decide how I want to resolve the lack of spatial separation and the awkward change of scale in the middle of the canvas, as well as the lack of harmony in the depiction of the houses.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Risking Change

We all talk about risking a change in painting materials & techniques, but to actually make those kinds of significant changes can be daunting. I've decided to take those risks now that I have a new home, studio, and landscape; I can devote more time to my own painting; and I have ideas to work on that were suggested by artists I have interviewed or watched demonstrate.

Among the changes I want to make are the composition of values in my plein air landscape paintings and the palette of colors I use to create those images. Specifically, I want to lighten the value of the shapes in the distance, and I want my color choices to be less dependent on exactly what I observe in nature.

Here are a few of the paintings I've created since establishing these objectives. When working on the first painting (Blue Ridge View, 2013, oil, 16" x 20"), I made an effort to lighten all the values in the distant spaces and darken the foreground shapes in order to project a deeper sense of space. I also pushed the colors in the background towards light purples and blues while pumping up the grays, browns, and purples in the foreground.

When working on the second painting (Road to Charlottesville, 2013, oil, 12" x 12"), I reversed the value composition by making the background shapes dark and those on the right-hand side much lighter than they actually appeared. I also moved the colors toward warmer tones using the new Gamblin Warm White oil paint, as well as warm pigments like yellow ochre, cadmium red, and ultramarine blue.

Finally, the view through the trees (View From Wayne Baptist Church, 2013, 11" x 14"), is also one in which I lightened the background, darkened the foreground, used thicker mixtures of oil color, and pushed the color mixtures towards warm purples, yellows, greens, and browns. By the way, I painted a 9" x 12" snow scene in March from the same parking lot.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Painting New Landscapes in Virginia

New Landscape, New Approaches to Painting in Virginia

I moved from New York to Virginia in December, 2012 after months of not doing any plein air painting. The planning and physical labor of moving out of a house we occupied for 34 years was just too overwhelming to allow time for painting. But that hiatus gave me an opportunity to think about where I wanted to go with my landscape painting and how I might approach a completely new range of scenes. As I switched from painting the Hudson River to the Blue Ridge Mountains, I thought about the advice I passed on from artists featured in PleinAir magazine to the publication's subscribers.

Many of those featured artists recommended painting what one wants to see rather than the details of what one actually sees. That is, they suggested using the landscape as inspiration for paintings that captured the emotional aspects of nature as well as her specific markings. For example, artists like Michael Godfrey and Bryan Mark Taylor talked about the spiritual side of painting; and painters like Gil Dellinger talked about exaggerating what one sees in order to convey what one feels.

I also considered how changing the way I worked with a palette of colors might a significant impact on my paintings, and in particular how a color like ultramarine blue might add more warmth and vibrancy to a picture that a cool blue like cerulean or Prussian blue. In addition, accents of purple made by combining ultramarine blue with alizarin crimson or perylene red could enliven a shadow; and grays made from titanium white, ultramarine blue, and touches of red iron oxide might add clarity and harmony to a painting.

What I wanted to explore was an approach to landscape painting based on somewhat unexpected color combinations that might actually do a better job of expressing what I found to be beautiful about a location. Instead of painting a field of grasses with the tan color I observed, for example, I might be better off starting with a cadmium orange or yellow ochre rather than with titanium white and burnt sienna. And when I thought I saw a light green in the trees, I might achieve more harmony by painting that portion of the landscape with a gray tinted with permanent green light.

I'm including photographs of me with some of my first attempts at painting the Virginia landscape with this new set of objectives. I should also add that in the photographs of me beside the fence I am wearing my most prized possession, the apron my granddaughter, Amanda Deyo, made for me as a Christmas present.