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Paint Portrait Subjects In Outdoor Settings

Paint Portrait Subjects In Outdoor Settings

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Painting The Outdoor Portrait by Rich Nelson 10/08

Painting the figure is a challenge, and painting the landscape outdoors is a challenge, so it makes sense that painting the figure outdoors is a complicated proposition. The difficulty of depicting a sitter well, and truly capturing the natural light illuminating the scene is daunting. But don't despair; the rewards of making strides in this endless pursuit make the effort worthwhile.

I have come to love painting portraits as well as landscape, still life, and figurative gallery paintings. Being endlessly fascinated by people, places, and things, it's a privilege and a challenge to capture some aspect of their essence on canvas. My goal is to work toward 'painterly realism'; good drawing and composition, rendered with strong natural color, in such a way that you can still 'sense' or 'feel' the paint.  The effect of this process is that the subject begins to artfully reveal itself to me and hopefully, the viewer.

When beginning to take portrait commissions, my experience was primarily painting from life in studio or classroom environments. Of course this is an endless pursuit as well; studying anatomy, light, and form as we developed our palette and our approach to painting. We worked with models who had the temerity to shift, breathe, or return to a pose in a slightly different position after breaks! All it took was a few moments on the model stand to realize what a gift these wonderful people give us.

"Nicole" 24x28 Oil On Linen- studio figure painting from life in 2000.

Hailing from Detroit, Michigan, I earned my BFA from the College Of Creative Studies there in 1988. It was at CCS that my love of painting, drawing, figurative art, and art history developed. I have been working as a portrait and gallery artist, and occasional instructor, since graduating, striving to do museum quality work that will be around long after my subjects and I have left this world. When one gets unsolicited feedback such as "We want you to know how much we LOVE the portrait. We sit in my dining room often and stare at it. You truly captured Spencer and we couldn’t be happier with it" and "everyone loves Georgia's portrait! Thanks so much for your hard work. We will enjoy the portrait for many years to come" it is very fulfilling.

As my career developed it became clear that many portraits, especially those of young children, were painted in an outdoor setting. This was very different; the cool blues of the sky were strongly influencing flesh tones that before were generally seen as warm. And in strongly lit compositions, the challenge of reproducing strong sunlight with paint on canvas was intimidating, yet so beautiful when handled well. Luckily, around that time Richard Seaman, a student at CCS, insisted we try painting landscapes outdoors. 

"Tryon Pepper Field" 30x40 Oil On Linen

"River #5" 30x40 Oil On Linen

"Sunrise #7" 11x14 Oil On Linen

This became a terrific new path of discovery. The benefit of trying to capture sunlight and atmosphere soon found its way into my portrait work.

"Brit" 44x28 Oil On Linen

"Justin" 30x26 Oil On Linen

"Britton" 38x32 Oil On Linen

"Charlie" 44x32 Oil On Linen

When painted indoors, portrait subjects tend to have darker hair and bigger (more open) eyes. 

"Thomas" 26x20 Oil On Linen

""Kevin And Becca" 43x43 Oil On Linen

Outdoors the hair is lighter, and the eyes can really narrow, especially if the subject is facing something bright. 

"Elizabeth And Sally" 31x38 Oil On Linen

While painting indoors usually has warm shadows (due to the influence of the generally warm indoor atmosphere), the shadows outdoors tend to be cool as they reflect the blue influence of the sky. And while the indoor light areas can be cool, neutral, or warm, the sunny highlights outside can be off the charts for warm color and high key values. These atmospheric effects can be especially intense in the early morning and late afternoon.

It might be good to step away from being an analytical artist at this point to state the obvious. This is a tremendously appealing motif to try to capture. The sun-drenched paintings of Sorolla, Hassam, Benson, et al give testament to this fact.

It seems to me that one of the key things we all love about Sargent's work is how he captured the perfect value and hue in the essential areas, and eliminated the unnecessary detail. The 'visual truth' is that we see less and less detail as we move into the peripheral ranges of our focus. By painting the way we really see instead of mechanically rendering everything that's in front of us (or in the reference photo) we hit chords in people's deepest core.

I tell students that painting is HARD, and that there might be an analytical way to work towards a better result. Consider the comparison to spinning or juggling plates; with individual plates for subject selection, composition, drawing, value (light and dark), color (hue), edges and paint application, and even the 'mystery plate', which refers to having all the other plates 'working' but still not achieving an interesting result. Often contrast (usually NOT 50/50!) is essential; not having a centered, symmetrical composition, having some sharp edges and some soft ones, some light areas and some dark ones, strong color and muted color, and so on. Simple still life studies are great ways to work on these concepts.

"Pisgah Vase With Figs" 11x14 Oil On Linen

"Pisgah Vase With Figs" 11x14 Oil On Linen

"Hilton Vase With Sunflower And Figs" 11x14 Oil On Linen

"Pisgah Vase With Lemons" 11x14 Oil On Linen

For canvas I stretch and prime Utrecht's 66J linen with two coats of Utrecht's rabbit skin glue (sanding between coats) and a thin coat of Cremnitz (lead) White. It's not as much effort as some seem to think, and probably a bit less expensive. I've tried the various pre-primed linen and canvas products and always seem to get back to the 66J. It gives great comfort to know that my process and materials are essentially the same as the paintings we see in museums that often look as if they could have been painted last week.

My palette indoors or out is currently Cremnitz White, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Red, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine, Cerulean Blue, Sap Green (now permanent), Viridian, Yellow Ochre, and Burnt Sienna. These are all Winsor Newton artist grade oils. There is no black, and of late no Raw Umber (these glacially paced shifts are always taking place). It seems more accurate to get darks by mixing Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna, or perhaps Sap Green and Alizarin, or some combination of these colors. This makes for more interesting darks that more closely reflect the warmth or coolness of the subject. For the intense chroma of certain subjects such as tropical lagoons and pink flowers one may need to get out Winsor (pthalo) Blue or Magenta or Permanent Rose. Please note: Lead White is especially toxic! Since white gets into nearly all mixtures please don't use a white that contains lead (PW1-check your tube) unless you are a neat painter. I use it very carefully. The way it handles, its fast drying properties, and its proven durability just seem to work.

For brushes, extra long filberts (sometimes called eggberts) have been a terrific discovery. There are a number of manufacturers of these and they vary greatly. Currently Richeson's Chelveston series and Robert Simmons Eggberts are getting a workout. These are 'soft'. Before my preference was for Silver Brush's stiffer qualities, but again, it's good to try different brands and gravitate towards the characteristics that seem right at the moment. It is not unusual for me to do an entire painting with the largest of these brushes, wiping the brush on Viva (not held in my hand!) or cleaning it in odorless mineral spirits now and then. For subsequent layers or when a stroke needs to be juicy a bit of refined linseed oil might be necessary, so it is always put out. It's important to do this on subsequent layers so the upper layer dries more slowly than the earlier layer. Otherwise cracking may result.

One of my mantras when teaching is "rarely is a painting problem solved with smaller brushes and less paint!" Use bigger brushes than you think possible, and good confident heavy paint mixtures. When I start using paltry thin mixtures it's clear that it's time for a break, and it also usually signifies that the painting is either nearly done, or in need of destruction!

For the demonstration paintings shown here my lovely wife Kim posed in our yard in the early morning, about an hour after dawn. The sun was rising behind her, giving a strong rim lighting effect on different parts of the composition. The idea was to capture the love of my life, the morning atmosphere, and a bit of the feeling of the Blue Ridge Mountains that we have grown to love so much. It felt like three 40x30 painting would be a good start. There seems to be a compulsion for me to do 'series' paintings lately; nine quick 'Sunrise' paintings while at the beach, six large 'River' paintings that required multiple sessions, nine still life paintings featuring early 20th Century North Carolina pottery from a friend's collection, and now these three 'Morning Paintings' of Kim.

If you are painting in the strong light shown here, there is little control. It is CHAOS! 

"Kim #1" 40x30 Oil On Linen

"Kim #2" 40x30 Oil On Linen

"Kim #3" 40x30 Oil On Linen

Light dances and dapples and shifts and touches here and now there, as leaves move in the breeze and the moving sun peeks between clouds racing across the sky. All one can do is paint like a demon.

The 'Morning Paintings' project was started with complete purity; Kim and me venturing out each sunny morning to paint for an hour or so. Then life intervened in the form of summer vacation for the kids, hordes of yellow jackets, and ever diminishing motivation on the part of artist and sitter. Finally we spent an hour with the camera and a few outfits and had the raw material to make 10 compositions. 

A word here about photography. It is the blessing and curse of the portrait business. Few have the time or inclination to sit for a portrait. We sometimes have trouble arranging and getting through one or two hour photo sessions! It seems you can get SOME accuracy from photos and LIFE from life. Certain drawing or color notes, and fleeting gestures and light effects can be frozen by the photographer who knows a bit about their tools. And, sadly, this is all many portrait painters often have to generate their work. A solid foundation of working from life can bring some of that 'life' into working from photos. None of my figure, landscape, or still-life work is done from photos, and hopefully no one would be able to tell which of my portraits was done from life and which was done from photos (or some combination of the two). For portraits done from photos, the composition gets worked out and any color tweaking necessary gets done in Photoshop. Then I print the photos on good 13x19 matte paper, and paint as though the subject was sitting there. And yet, it seems imperative to eliminate even this in time. All one needs to do is look at the work done from life (often before electricity!) to see that it is often vastly superior to much of the work done now in the digital/ computer/projector age. 

As always, the paintings of Kim were done working from the general to the specific, massing in the large supporting areas and then working toward the focal points. This is preferable to me because it seems necessary to see the supporting adjacent values and tones to correctly achieve the correct tones in the critical focal areas. After getting a quick compositional drawing and minimal value study on the canvas with thin Burnt Sienna it's time to began blocking in the major shapes, getting the largest ones knocked in first. Sometimes it's not necessary to work into these masses much at first unless there is a glaring error. There's no need to refine too much until the canvas is covered and all the beginnings of the relationships are established. Then it's time to readdress areas, and get to work on the key areas like the hands and the face. Other times its more compelling to get the supporting areas developed to be able to focus on the more exciting key areas.  You can see a video of this and other paintings from start to finish at

Here is the first painting step; just getting a sense of the composition. Many problems can be avoided at this stage; being too centered or being out of balance, having the figure and head too large, etc. There are many ways to wreck a painting, and it's better to wipe it out here and start over than slog on stoically to a dismal result.

A quick washy tonal study in Burnt Sienna can help to see how the weight of the composition is distributed, and if it seems to have unity. Unity is the elusive goal of all creative expression. In painting, this is best described as that feeling as a viewer that you want to 'steal' the painting. If you are not familiar with this impulse you may need to get to more museums, galleries, classes, seminars, friend's studios...

Now it's time to to block in the large peripheral areas. The key concept is 'general to specific'. This is the idea of getting the largest, less important areas stated before narrowing the focus to the main subject areas. 

One may elect to keep things loose at this point until every area is massed in, or try to work out the areas a bit more so as to be able to get into the most inspiring areas, as I've done here. The great anatomy teacher at CCS, Russell Keeter (1935-1991) used to say in his NC drawl "don't be afraid to lose your drawing". It's better to be overlapping masses, and be open to changing and correcting shapes, as opposed to painting slavishly up to lines. This is the way to begin to control and have a range of edges, which are so critical to quality painting. It gives great joy to continue to 'hear' the voices of the many who have helped us on our journeys.

It's always exciting when every area has been addressed and you can start to work all over until it's complete.

There are many quips about knowing when a painting is finished. Ultimately, time and experience lay painfully bare the ones that needed a bit more, and the ones that needed a bit less. That is why I preach 'process'; going through the steps; from conceiving a glimmer of a concept to putting it on the wall, over and over again. Enjoy the 'ups', endure the 'downs' and keep at it!
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