Working From A Photo vs. Working En Plein Air

Posted by Amie Gonser on

Recently I decided to make a little "experiment", a test of sorts, by first producing a painting in the studio using a photo as reference, then going out to the same location and producing a plein air painting of the same scene. I wanted to see if I could produce a studio painting with the same looseness and spontaneity of a plein air painting.  I also wanted to work on my craft in general (composition, painting trees and buildings using simple shapes and creating an obvious focal point within the work.

Determined not to overwork the painting, I began it in the same way I do plein air, with a warm underpainting and blocking in the darker shapes. I set a time limit on myself and got to work. The photo was taken in late afternoon on an overcast day, so highlights and cast shadows were not present. I decided to use artistic license and change the blue sky to warm yellow, indicating early morning.  I felt given the overall dark value of the scene and lack of visible sun and shadow, this would make sense. I really liked the effect. 

On the following day, I drove out to the country and set up my easel in the same spot where the photo had been taken. This time, it was early morning, blue sky and plenty of sun, the perfect setting for painting en plein air. Without referencing the painting I had previously done, I created almost the exact composition with a few added details that the photo had failed me on. There was a barn, small pond and fence line on the right, also I added more color and detail in the foreground grasses.

I feel both paintings are successful works of art, but in my opinion, the plein air piece is stronger. While it has more detail, it carries a fresh realness about it and as with all plein air adventures, there is a story behind it. Painting at my kitchen table has nothing on the experience of painting outdoors on location. This is why I love painting en plein air so much, as on that particular morning, the wind blowing through the grasses, the warm sun on my skin, a mocking bird singing its mixed up song, as I painted at my easel and the troubles of the world slowly faded, if only for a few hours. 

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