How do You Approach “En Plein Air” Painting?
By Margaret Vickers
It is rare for artists to share so fully their approach to making marks. The Lane Cove Art Society (LCAS) invited award winning painter Peta Dzubiel as their guest demonstrator for the March general meeting (2023). The outcome was a fabulous evening of artmaking where practical information about “en plein air” painting was clearly presented with genuine passion.
Currently Peta’s focus has been on local landscapes. As a new mother her painting destinations have been narrowed to her local area, which happens to be the scenic northern beaches. She worked from a painted image of Warriewood beach. However, the initial part of Peta’s presentation centred on practical tips for painting out in the field, “en plein air”.
Peta carries a backpack. Housed inside is a disposable palette which is stuck to a disposable cardboard box. It allows her to lay out her palette as well as other materials such as brushes and bull dog clips. She takes a sarong or blanket which can be spread out, some plastic bags, paints, odourless solvent and a number 1 medium. If the latter two items are mixed and added to the oil paint it results in a fresher appearance rather than a dried out artwork. A barrier cream is used to cleanse her hands as it gets rid of any toxic paint. As for her “canvas” Peta uses a Bouchard box because not only can its lid carry the required boards cut to a predetermined size but when the lid is open it also serves as a small easel. Peta can then sit on her sarong in the field and commence painting without attracting too much attention.
The second part of Peta’s talk centred on how to simplify the complexity of the scenes that surround you. “At times it can seem overwhelming,” remarked Peta. Use a limited palette. It simplifies the painting technique. Peta’s landscape scenes arise out of using four colours plus titanium white. The colours used include yellow ochre, violet (warm), burnt umber and ultramarine. Numerous tones and colours can be created with this limited palette.
Peta commenced painting on a gessoed MDF board, which is light and portable. Before the gesso is applied to the MDF the board is sealed with a Jo Sonja varnish so that no chemicals are released. Importantly, Peta used a brush with a square shaped head. It produces interesting textural marks. To make the white board less intimidating a rag with a bit of umber on it was dragged across the board to give a light base layer.
Think about composition. Are you going to have more land than sky or more sky than land? The painting is more interesting if the work is not “cut in half”. Consider what you want to pull forward or push back. “It is all about push and pull,” commented Peta “ so adjust as you see fit.” To inject harmony into the work put some sky colour in the land and also add some land colour to the sky.
How you use your brush when applying the paint is important. It creates texture within the work. “ The direction of brush strokes gives form to elements within your artwork.” A combination of yellow ochre and ultramarine can provide a green for the ocean, which can be softened with the addition of titanium white. The deep sand colour was created from combining violet and umber. Adding titanium white changed the tone. A lot of white near the horizon creates a “heat haze” effect.
Peta’s passion for painting marks was obvious throughout the presentation. She noted that her interest in art may have been in part due to influences from her family. Her grandmother was an artist and had many art books around. In addition, Peta’s sister Catherine was a talented drawer and importantly encouraged Peta to enroll in a Bachelor of Fine Arts course at the College of Fine Arts which she did. She completed this course with Honours in 2006. Awards followed including winning the Brett Whiteley travelling scholarship twice as well as winning the Fisher’s Ghost prize for traditional painting in 2013.
Throughout the presentation Peta’s genuine passion for painting was obvious. The actual marks Peta creates evoke an air of mystery and ambiguity. She divulged that she loves Arthur Streeton’s work. She has tried to analyse his style in an attempt to understand his “painting language.” When he uses opposite colours from the colour wheel side by side in his painting it “comes alive.” Maybe it is worth seeing if this feature brings your painting alive.
Thank you Peta for giving the LCAS an incredibly entertaining and educational evening of art.