By Lori Putnam
The number one thing I get when I paint outdoors is knowledge. So many questions are answered right there in front of me. Value, color, and edge are the three biggies. It’s one of the reasons why I love working en plein air.
My process works really well for me.
First, I do as much planning as I feel I need on paper. Every situation is different. Sometimes I only need a rough thumbnail sketch and I’m on to the paint. I like to use markers for this so I don’t make a drawing instead of a sketch. I take as long as it takes to sort out potential problems before I ever touch the canvas.
One of the biggest problems outdoor painters have is getting values right. I’ll make notes on my sketch to indicate where in the scene I need to place my mid-value. My mixing surface is a mid-value, so I can compare anything darker or lighter to that. It is the cornerstone from which I measure everything else. Later, when I mix colors, I will then be able to tell if they are the right value relationship to my mixing area. Value problems solved.
When I feel confident I’ve sorted out all the gnarly decisions, I know I will also have answered the question about how best to begin. Most of the time that is by toning the canvas with a color I sense travels throughout the scene like a common thread. Sometimes that can be very chromatic, but not always. Think of it like cooking. You want a flavor that runs through the dish, not something disgusting. For instance, if you’re cooking a rich meat sauce, you may begin with onions and garlic. You wouldn’t start with the same ingredients if you were baking a lemon pie. That is why I do not pre-stain my canvas. I wait and react to what I see before me.
If I need to, I’ll draw a few marks or lines for placement. Again, not every painting is handled the exact same way. I think that’s important — to paint in a manner for which the scene calls. This could mean digging right in with just big masses and no lines at all. For this example, I’ll think of how I might approach a scene with strong light and shadow. I lay in a fairly thin layer for the shadow and one for the light, using my thumbnail sketch as my reference. These are really flat, graphic patterns. I work from large shapes to medium-sized shapes to small shapes, and all over the canvas at once. Usually I work from dark to light, but if the painting is very high-key or has only small shadow shapes, I may work the other way around. It’s important to continue to build up the paint with each breaking down of shapes by getting slightly thicker with each layer. I also use a softer brush and a softer touch and let the tools do all the work. That way the underlayers of paint only mix with the outer layers if I intentionally add a little more pressure. I like a progression of shapes in my work — some stay fairly large while others break down to medium and still others to small.
People ask how I know when I’m finished. I stand back from the easel fairly often, and when I find myself just making smaller shapes for no apparent reason, I stop. Most of the time, in fact, the last 25 percent of the process is taking out where I put in too many small shapes. Simpler is better for me.
Lori Putnam (“Bold Brushstrokes and Confident Color”) Recognized for her expressive brushwork, contemporary compositions, and intelligent use of color, Nashville native Lori Putnam paints small to medium-sized works en plein air and creates large paintings in her studio. Having painted in 16 different countries and hundreds of small towns and villages, she believes the work created from life helps her maintain freshness in her studio paintings as well.