Painting outdoors

Painting a landscape outdoors

Getting to know the scene

I took some time walking around the garden to decide what view I would paint and decided on a very familiar image of an old apple tree at the top of our garden. My written journal is becoming a constant companion for jotting down my reflections and feelings and I find that this step of private reflection is having a real impact on what and how I paint.

Having selected the view, these are the preliminary notes I made in my Journal as I began to get to know the image and the environment:

“I am sitting outside in the garden and the scene in front of me is so beautiful…..  colours, shapes, sounds, the warmth of the sun on my arms, a plane overhead on its way to Heathrow, Leo is lying at my feet loving the summer warmth and the companionship – a soft breeze in the surrounding trees and all the leaves in front of me respond with gentle movements.  In the far distance, I can hear the dull roar from the surrounding motorways hurrying people back and forth to meet the demands of busy lives. But just as distant objects are painted with soft washes of grey tones to suggest space, so these sounds are muffled and grey in my consciousness.

Unlike the strong sun of yesterday, today is shaded in soft cloud and the light changes the landscape for fleeting moments. Sitting here, watching and listening, I am loving the change which occurs with the coming of light…”

I sat for more than an hour just listening and experiencing.  Even though I could have chosen other images in the garden, images just bursting with colour, it is this one of the old apple tree which I felt I could respond to.  It is a wonderful old tree and has been a special place for the family over many years where birds have nested and we have spent endless hours in its shade.  I love old trees and for some reason they always meet a response in me – don’t know why!

The distant view beyond is full of very established trees and shrubs with all of the rhododendrons producing the most amazing colours. A winding grass path takes the eyes from the tree into the scene beyond.

This was the preliminary visit, so tranquil and happy…unlike what was to come!

Painting outdoors

Packed up all the gear and this wasn’t so bad because I have a great outdoor easel which is easy to put together and is firm and well balanced.  It also has a tray which will take the tubes of paint…so this step was accomplished easily.

However the actual painting was far from easy.  I started with a pencil sketch …..went well…really enjoy working with the pencil still. The composition came together with the old tree dominating the foreground.  Then I started to paint.

Major problems started immediately. I forgot a very important point which I had learnt on the Drawing 1 course about drawing outdoors…the eye takes in a lot more information about the scene than would actually be included in a viewfinder.  I wasn’t using a viewfinder – didn’t think I needed to – and so my first step of blocking in the shapes of the image was completely wrong.  I found it very difficult to restrict my vision to a structure and when I look back at the pencil sketch, this problem is there as well.

So the initial drawing with paint was scrapped and I had to start again. However this didn’t get any better and I had to continually re-align the horizon line – never did get it right! The colour tones were ok and I enjoyed discovering the tones of green and their changes according to space on the page.

The second problem was dealing with the fast drying of the paint. I wasn’t in direct sun but the paint was drying very fast. This was a pressure but I didn’t mind because I wanted to paint fast.  However the pressure began mounting because I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome. I didn’t want a representational image and the painting was fast becoming that.

The third problem was the midges!  In the sultry warm atmosphere, they began to swarm and this was the end!  I ended up completely frustrated with everything!  Not a good day!  What am I about? I cannot seem to reconcile my ability to paint the scene in front of me to the image which is inside me!  HELP!!!!


Back in the studio…..

This had been a very frustrating experience and looking at the image which I had painted filled me with despair! I just hated the image ….

I tried to work on it but this was not a good idea – it simply became worse!  Finally out came the white paint and I wiped it out.  This felt good!  A day’s work wiped out with white paint!!! I attempted to begin again over the white paint but it would not yield so decided to walk away.

The next morning early, I walked down to the studio and I had the strange feeling of needing to make my peace with the image…it had become very real for me and I was surprised at this reaction..  For the next two days I continued to explore the image and my response to it continually pushing further into my inner world of response and memory to bring out what needed to be said about the image.  Sometimes I would finish one and go straight into another continually pushing out into new expression….struggling for a loosening up of boundaries.  As I finished the third painting I knew I could keep going, all the time finding shapes and colours until the image became entirely abstract.  I found this very exciting as I saw the possibilities.

As I look at the images now I can see the movement of thought which has taken place through this process.  The final image or at least the place where I stopped, has some interesting areas and I like the fact that different combinations of colours are there…the painting talks to me of a place which is loved, and where there is beauty and joy.  But I think if I had taken it further I would have searched for a way to express tranquility and peace…….?  Still all a mystery……..


Photograph of the old apple tree in the garden

Painting 1 of the old apple tree…painted outdoors…subsequently destroyed!


Studio work from memory and reflections of experience of the scene…trying to respond to the beauty of the image…paint applied freely with brush


Loosening up shapes and colour with washes – tree highlighted with masking fluid


Restricting to a limited palette of three colours and using my hands to apply the paint…very little brush work …just hands and palette knife! This is the first stage of the final image.


Final image – continued to work with hands and palette knife




About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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