Friday, July 12, 2013

Painting in the Sierras with Jeremy Lipking

I recently returned from a week in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in California. I attended a workshop given by one of my favorite fine artists, Jeremy Lipking. We painted at least twice each day for five days, with Jeremy giving daily live demonstrations and he also would come around to help each of us as we painted.

The first time I had ever been to the eastern Sierras was on a week long backpacking trip with a school group in 1989, hiking from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite Valley, across some rough terrain. And I had gone back a couple of times to Mammoth and Mono Lake with friends. But this workshop took me back up into the really high country--painting at around 10,000 feet almost every day. There wasn't too much hiking involved in this trip. But the little bit we did do was made a bit more taxing with the thin air and the fact that I am no longer a teenager! But it was an awesome backdrop for plein air study, so I didn't mind.

This workshop was also the first time I have done so many plein air paintings in so short a time. Usually, back at home, after I've done one three hour outdoor session, I'm ready to call it a day. But we stayed out all day, in the sun, wind, and occasionally bad mosquitoes to do two paintings each day of the trip. The constant focus and mental energy required in these outdoor environments really showed me some of my weaknesses.

The main bad habit that was made obvious was how I often rush through the early stages of a painting to get to the "fun part." Watching Jeremy work so carefully and methodically was really great to see. He took his time laying in the initial drawing, and then still took his time as he started blocking in the big shapes with color. He took great care to design the strokes and edges, right from the beginning. Jeremy could have stopped his painting at any time and still had a really nice composition. That's something I need to remember well.

The other bad habit I noticed is how I always include too much subject matter in the composition. There's nothing inherently wrong with trying to paint a grand panorama in 3 hours. I generally work pretty small. But I do that too often. Which usually results in a blocky, crudely captured scene with very little subtlety. One great demo Jeremy did one day was at the edge of a large grove of aspen trees in Lee Vining Canyon. He spent all his time on one single aspen and the shadow it cast on the ground. It was more of a meditative portrait of that single tree than what most people think of as a plein air landscape painting. Everything else was sort of out of focus ending in a vignette of the scene. By focusing on just the one tree, he was able to really explore the subtle shifts in color within the shadows on the trunk and give a nice variety of edges to his shapes.

Finally, one other thing I learned in the workshop was how it's not important to always try to pick "the perfect view" which lends itself easily to a classic landscape composition. A great painting can be found in a small corner of a canyon, or next to a couple boulders, or some small detail you might pass by on a nature hike. It can be minimalistic or not classically "pretty." The critical thing is to just get out there, no matter where you are, and find something that catches your eye. Plein air painting teaches you how to compose and re-arrange elements to serve the composition, how to economize your brush work, make quick on the spot decisions, and learn how to capture the light and atmosphere of the time of day.

Here are some of the pieces I did on the trip. They range in size between 6 x 8 and 8 x 10 inches. Click on the images for a larger view.

At Mono Lake with most of the workshop group.

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