Plein Air Essentials: The Anatomy of Water

11 Jul 2011

Ocean II by John Hulsey, 30 x 40, oil painting
Ocean II by John Hulsey, 30 x 40, oil painting.
The painting Ocean II was created from a smaller plein air study created at sunrise on Isle of Palms, South Carolina. I liked the composition and colors, and especially the way the wet sand mirrored the sky so that they seemed to become one surface. The landscape painting study convinced me that an exciting life-sized studio painting could be made of the subject.

My artistic goal was to see how little detailed information would be needed to express this moody sunrise over a calm sea. The painting was executed on a masonite panel that was first primed with 3 coats of gesso over an initial coat of acrylic sealer. Because I wanted to achieve very soft, semi-transparent, luminous colors in this piece, I planned to paint it in a fresco-like style similar to the techniques I use when watercolor painting. The idea is to paint all the colors quickly, alla prima, working wet into wet, using a medium such as Neo Megilp to keep the paint open, transparent, and workable for a longer period of time.

I like to start with the sky. I apply all the colors with a 3" or 4" flat bristle backdrop brush. At this point, I can add more color in layers to deepen and intensify them, or remove color all the way to the gesso if need be. Once I get the colors just the way I like, I switch to smaller bristle filberts and brights and adjust the shapes and edges for surface excitement.

Next, I pay close attention to the paint surface as the paint begins to set-up and becomes less workable. At this point in the painting process I can also take another large, flat blending brush and lightly blend and push the paint surface around to soften it wherever it needs it. This can only be done for a few minutes and then the moment is over. I then allowed the sky to dry thoroughly before any other adjustments were made.

While I was waiting on the sky, I moved to the water. Working carefully, I laid in my water tones using a slightly deeper version of the sky palette. Again, the tones were glazed in wet with no details or hard lines. The softening/blending phase followed and then I allowed the section to dry.

As soon as the paint was dry to the touch, I gave it a light coat of retouch varnish to restore the wet look to the surface. When that dried, I added the blue wave shapes and the very dark accents to build depth. It is critical at this point to limit the amount of detail! Like good gardening, good painting is a process of editing. In most paintings, convincing suggestions of a few forms is all that is needed to create a 3-dimensional sense of space.

For more on painting water and many other in-depth articles about painting, visit us at The Artist's Road.

--John & Ann

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mark beale wrote
on 13 Jul 2011 6:40 PM

This is beautifully painted and explained.