Plans for the plein air course I'll be teaching in April are constantly sifting in my head; I’m always noting things that are useful to think about with regard to painting outside, and filing them away in order of importance. One issue I was dealing with on Monday stood out as particularly critical: after painting, I raced to my “teaching art” folder and wrote it down on the first page, as something to talk about the first day.
For veteran plein air painters, this is old hat, BUT: I’m a veteran plein air painter, and this struck me more forcefully than ever. (Not to mention that I’m always re-learning, and re-appreciating, old rules.) We all know that you need to establish the parameters of your image/view/scene before you begin. You use your fingers or some kind of viewfinder – possibly a rectangle, square, etc., that you cut from cardboard (I prefer my fingers: that way I can instantly experiment with different sizes and shapes) -- and position them so that you can identify the center, corners, and edges of your proposed image.
The exact location of every tree limb or tuft of grass within that frame is too much information to remember, but you should try as best you can to MEMORIZE, and hold fast in the front of your mind, those key coordinates. I have a tendency to look, get a general sense, then start painting – and then have to stop, jam my brushes under my arm and – woops, there one fell on the ground; now I've got it, but I'm getting paint on my sleeve; oh all right I’ll just put them down for a minute; what was that image again? etc. – over and over again. Bad practice. It’s a waste of energy and time, and it’s interrupting of flow, all of which is hard on a plein air painter – on any painter.
If you make an effort to imprint your coordinates in your mind, you won’t have to stop, and you’ll be able to paint more freely and confidently, with a sense that you have your composition – that arrangement of elements that moved you to paint – in your grasp.