Painting at Historic Yates Mill County Park

plein air painting scene at Historic Yates Mill County Park Jun 2 2019
Painting my view of the pond and trees at Yates Mill County Park

After moving to North Carolina (it was a year ago this weekend!), I joined the North Carolina Plein Air Painters group. Every once in awhile there’s a casual paint out organized in the Raleigh area. Last September I attended one of the meetups, where I did my first plein air painting. The other day when I checked in on the events calendar I was excited to see there was a paint out scheduled at Historic Yates Mill County Park. This was a location on my list of places to paint, and luckily my Sunday was open, so I made the commitment to attend. Being an introvert, the temptation to skip it when the time comes is strong…but I got myself out there and enjoyed it so much.

The surface of the water changed often due to a gentle breeze across the top, making it look either almost white or a perfect reflection of the treelines.

I had a whole plan in mind for what procedure I would follow for my painting. Which quickly went astray after I began applying color. It started well — I made a value thumbnail to establish my shapes, and used that thumbnail as my reference for drawing on the canvas. After drawing it in with thinned burnt umber, I scrubbed in the shadows of the tree masses with thinned paint, trying to match the average colors I saw in the landscape. I wanted to see if I could get more luminosity by skipping the monochromatic underpainting to establish values and going straight to a block-in with average colors.

My intention had been to be very methodical, blocking in the shadows and then going back to block in the halftones and light areas. My thought was that this would give me an idea of the relationships between all of the colors, values, and shapes. But I quickly got hung up working on the trees, fussing around with their shapes instead of moving all around the canvas. It was much more overwhelming to be out there in nature painting than I anticipated in my head! Thankfully I had at least found a good spot in the shade, and there were very few bugs bothering me.

For my palette, I used ultramarine blue, burnt umber, transparent red earth, naphthol red, yellow ochre light, Winsor lemon, and titanium white. I didn’t pre-mix any colors on my palette. I wanted to make continual mixes as I went along in order to vary my colors more and be more responsive to making adjustments. I’m finding that when I pre-mix, I get pretty dedicated to using those mixes rather than adjusting them to better suit the painting.

I didn’t end up using the burnt umber, transparent earth red, or yellow ochre light very much. It was simpler to just use the red, blue, and yellow. I’m sure if I do more color mixing exercises in the studio it will make it easier to incorporate some of these colors for convenience.

There are elements I really like about my painting, like the bright green lily pads along the shoreline, the distant bridge, the warm and cool colors in the water, and the fact that I didn’t overwhelm it with big lifeless dark areas (something I’ve been struggling with in the studio)

A few things I could be working on to make progress on the outdoor painting front:

  • Do timed paintings in the studio. I was very aware of the idea that the light changes fast outdoors, changing the light and shadow shapes. This awareness distracted me and made me feel a sense of urgency. I want to quiet that rushed feeling.
  • Get more practice by doing outdoor painting exercises. Things like monochromatic value studies, making color notes, and establishing light and shadow would be useful. The key will be to remember that they’re not meant to be anything like finished paintings.
  • Make a checklist to stick on my pochade box to remind me what steps I want to follow. This could change each time, but if I at least have it there as something to guide me it would make me feel less overwhelmed.
  • Spend some time outdoors just studying the landscape, writing observations of what I’m seeing without drawing or painting anything — sort of like a mock plein air painting. I noticed that I rushed right into getting started without really understanding the scene I was looking at. Learning to look at the scene critically and connect with what I see would help the process be more enjoyable.