Friday, September 2, 2011

Plein Air Demonstration in Stowe Vermont

This is is story that I wrote for the American Society of Marine Artists quarterly journal.  The "Fellows Corner", a section written by the Fellows of the society.  This was my story.

The Fellows
Insights and Inspirations
from ASMA’s top artists
It’s always easy to spot a Sergio Roffo painting
- even on a crowded, group-show gallery
wall. His are the ones that always look and
feel authentic; lovely, quiet scenes that are
sensitively composed and painted, imbued
with a master’s understanding of light and
atmosphere. Here, he takes us to Vermont
on a plein aire trip for an inside look at his
materials and techniques.
Photo #2 Russ Kramer, Managing Fellow

Hi, I'd like to share a personal moment from a plein air trip, from which I recently returned.  I've been painting coastal landscapes for over 20 years (wow, time flies). Every once in a while, we artists get the urge to paint something different or, in my case, a subject matter that doesn't have water in it.  After painting  for my Nantucket solo show this year, I've decided to head north. My mind was in "mountain mode"

 Painting landscapes of valleys and countryside is nothing new to me. I often return to my native 
San Donato Italy, a remote village on the slopes of the Apennines mountains. It's my own little
Tuscany, and I have frequently painted it's pristine valleys, its olive groves, and rolling hills.

As I was driving north on Interstate 93 in my Tacoma pickup toward Vermont's Green Mountains national forest, I kept thinking if I remembered to pack all of my tubes of paint. There is always one color that you missed.  I recall a time when I forgot my Titanium White. Try painting without it sometime. It was very interesting.  My destination was Stowe, Vermont,  where I married my beautiful bride about 25 years ago. It is also the home of the Trapp Family Lodge, The Vermont Mozart Festival, and a world ski resort, often referred to as the "Aspen country of the East".

Upon my arrival in Stowe (photo #1)  I drove down Main Street  to see if things were the same as I left  them 25 years ago. It seemed as though time stood still.  I was going to enjoy the slow pace of mountain life for a few days. It was overcast, and the forecast did not look any better for the following day.

The next morning I set out in search of the subject matter around 8 a.m. If it were sunny, I would have been out the door at dawn. it was extremely overcast with a chill in the air.  I was hoping the rain would hold off.  It didn't take me very long to find a suitable place to set up shop  out  of the way of traffic, in a corn field. Open fields and farmlands abound in Stowe (photo #2 and #3)


I like to complete a field study in one sitting, "alla prima."  This is one of the reasons why I like to work on location with a comfortable size, such as 8x15, or 9x12.  This particular day I decided to use an 11x14 panel, toned down the night before with an earth tone oil wash.  A slightly larger panel, but since it was overcast, i wouldn't have to rush as much trying to fill it all in. But the weather was turning for the worse.

The feeling or the mood of the painting should be completed in 3 to 4 hours. After that time, the light would normally change somewhat, but since it was a cloudy day, the light would remain constant. I worked very diligently, trying to get as much information on my panel as I could before the rain came. 
Also, the more information I had, the easier it would be for me to do a larger version in my studio, if I chose. The studio versions tend to take a life of their own, sometime lacking lacking the freshness and the spontaneity of a field study.  On the other hand they can be rendered with more control and accuracy.
Furthermore, because time is not an issue, glazing can be done too.  And a nice espresso enjoyed every now and then in the comfort of your own studio, enhances the creative process immeasurably.

In my early years right after art school I worked as an Illustrator, doing freelance work for art directors. They were very demanding about meeting deadlines, but not nearly as demanding as the sun, which forces you you to complete  a study before the shadows change. Since the day was overcast, I didn't have to battle with the sun. Being an Illustrator taught me how to be prolific. Painting outdoors requires the mixing of color and finding the right values fast. It also imbues your painting with freshness and spontaneity.
 I use a Julien french easel for plein air painting with a french easel companion,  which is basically is a palette  in a folding box (photo #4).
I've glued a 1/4 inch glass plate inside, which makes for a quick clean up of the palette. It also allows me to scrape the dry paint off more easily. For brushes I use various size filberts with sable rounds (Photo #6). 

And for paints, I prefer W&N, Gamblin, and Grumbacher tubes.  I always arrange the colors on my palette in the same location, from warm to cool. (Photo #5)

I started  with a simple charcoal  line sketch to establish my composition. All I needed was four simple lines to create the shapes for this painting. (Photo #7)  

a time, starting with the background and moving on to the foreground. Normally, I fill in all my shadow areas first so I don't loose them as the sun shifts,  but there was no need rush,  other than the fact that it could rain at any moment.  I would start with the sky first and add the mountains with various greys, mixed with cobalt blue and orange and white.  I subsequently added some violet blue, along with hints of sap green. (Photo # 8)
The area where the foreground trees were to be painted, I kept the paint very thin, so when the time came to add the trees, my brush strokes wouldn't pick up the background color. Please note that its very important to use as much of the sky color that's on your palette throughout the painting to establish harmony.
Moving along, I completed the detail work on the mountains and added the middle ground of trees with hints of highlights, using my greys from the palette and adding darker values of sap green and cobalt blue and violet.  I layered in the field as a foundation for the trees, using a combination of cadmium green pale, sap green, yellow ochre and some sky color. (Photo #9)
I then started incorporating some texture and different values of color and lines on the field in the same direction as the rolling plane. (Photo #10).  I also began adding some foliage in the foreground with warm and rich tones of green, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and umber for the darks.
Up to this point,  filbert brushes were the only brushes used.  For the trunks of the trees I mixed an area of alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, and burnt umber. I applied the color with my sable rounds and a rigger- a long thin sable brush. (Photo #11)
The trees were painted over the background. Accents of deep reds and orange in the foliage provided a reminder that Fall and Winter were around the corner. In (Photo #12) the field was continued. I was rapidly approaching the completion of this study. I continued adding texture to my foreground and softening any hard edges, absent in nature, where the trees met the field.  The painting was almost complete but it needed an element on the right side for balance. So I used my artistic license to add a red barn, which was actually behind me, into the composition. 

This  completed my session. (Photo #13)

and sure enough,  it started pouring as I was packing my gear.  Oh, and by the way,  I did forget my ultramarine blue, so I had to improvise with cobalt blue. After packing up, I immediately drove to the closest art store that was on the other side of the mountains, thirty miles away.

I'm a landscape painter. I paint what I see, not what I think is there. It's all about painting the feeling and the mood. This particular scene was painted in just over three hours on location.  "There is no better reference than painting from life."
See you in the field.

Sergio Roffo,  "fellow" of the American Society of Marine Artists 

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