EN-PLEIN AIR - What to include and what to leave out
by Charlie Spratt

Recently, I have been asked to write a bit about how artists go about choosing what to include and what to leave out especially when working en plein air. For a start, I do not have answers nor even specific recommendations about the choices one makes but I can tell you about how I go about choosing a subject and deciding on composition etc. It’s a subject that I used to discuss at all my workshops and it has a lot to do with getting to know oneself and developing a style that reflects one’s personal tastes.

It is important for an artist to consciously make some decisions about what the subject will be and what to leave out before a painting is ever started. This is particularly true of plein air painting where we can be influenced by so many sensual effects such as changing light and weather conditions, a jumble of colours, shapes, moving shadows and reflections to name a few. In fact there are so many sensual effects inundating our eyes and ears from all around us and so little time to assemble it all before the daylight has shifted that it is a wonder any plein air painting ever gets completed! That’s why we need a plan: a process for getting to the reason we want to paint and what we want to say.

Clearly for me, the first order of business, when I choose to paint somewhere, is to take the time to have a conversation with myself about what really interests me and what I’d like to express in my painting – all before I start unpacking my brushes. Why, I ask, have I stopped my car at this particular place? Is it the interesting sky today? The patterns of shadows through the trees? The shapes of the buildings? If some of these questions can be clarified in my mind, then some judgements can be made about what to concentrate on (include) and what is superfluous (to leave out). A sketch book for trying different ideas is good, a viewfinder can simplify choices too. When my thoughts are finally focused, I know the painting is off to a good start and I’m ready to start drawing and painting. You will find that with practice this process becomes almost automatic. Rushing to get painting often results in poor composition and a weak painting.

When you are ready, let your painting develop as you go along and you will find that you know what you want to include and what should be left out.

Happy painting,
Charlie Spratt

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