One of my current big projects is a large painting (48 x 84) of the olive grove where my friend Chris grew up in Porterville, Ca. I haven't actually started on the big canvas yet. Still doing studies.
I had a chance to visit the grove this weekend and actually see the grove, and to get a feel for the place. Porterville is a tiny little town located in the heart of California's Central Valley, which you may or may not know, is the core of agriculture in California. It's flat as far as the eye can see, and you see nothing but crops laid out in neat grids that stretch forever.
I arrived early afternoon, and immediately started taking pictures of and around the ranch. I'd been sick all week and was just recovering so I didn't feel like painting. I also had this mysterious stiff neck which allowed me only about 10 degrees of rotation in any direction. I quickly found I couldn't even sketch because that would require moving my head up and down as I looked at the scene and my sketchbook. A couple of Advils alleviated the pain, but that didn't improve my cervical (of or pertaining to the neck, not the female organ which I don't have!) mobility, so I resigned myself to taking photos for the afternoon.
I had a great time doing that, though. Taking in the ranch environment, and acquainting myself with the feeling of being in the grove as opposed to just looking at it. You see, that's the feeling I want to convey in my big painting. A sense of being inside, among the big olives. I knew it wasn't going to happen unless I actually experienced it myself, so this is the main purpose of my trip. Not that I wouldn't have welcomed getting away for a few days without purpose...
Later on, Chris took me around to the foothills which was just 20 minutes to the East. I said earlier that it was flat forever in all directions, but I was mistaken. To the East, the snow capped Sierras loom high. I just couldn't see them before because of the haze. On a clear day, it must be spectacular! As we climbed up the foothills, the landscape changed dramatically... but that's another day's painting adventure.
Dinner was great. Chris's family gathered at Rosa's restaurant, which, according to Linda is the only place to go in Porterville (that's how small this town is). Nonetheless, it was a lot of fun. We were a big party of about twelve, and the food was home-style Italian, and Chris's family is just a fun bunch to hang out with, and they made me feel welcome and at home. Bottles of chianti didn't hurt either.
So ok, let's talk about painting. Next morning, I got up early. My stiff neck was gone, and I felt great. I set up my easel and started a sketch of this guesthouse on the property. It's a small sketch (6 x 8) because I haven't painted en plein air in a long time and didn't feel like I could pull off a larger one. Anyway, the messy jumble of branches on the foreground was what interested me. My aim was to paint most of it with just gestural strokes, and add a just a few well defined, sharper edged details to pull it all together. Because these few tiny elements act as visual cues, you can keep everything else very loose and suggestive, and they'll look like what they're supposed to. It never fails to amaze and amuse me how that works.
Here's my set up. I was in the shade when I started the painting, but twenty minutes into it I was getting full fun. A little annoying, but it's just one of those plein air obstacles. The winter sun isn't all that harsh, so it wasn't too bad. I didn't bother with an umbrella. I hate using an umbrella anyway.
Here's my next sketch, another 6 x 8. I've painted this fountain before from a photo, but painting on site and from direct observation is a completely different experience. My main goal was to try and not make a cut-out shape of this fountain. I wanted to lose edges, and make some areas ambiguous enough to place the fountain in its environment, and not just a thing against a background. There was a lot of light bouncing around, and it was an effort to keep it simple and stick to my original plan - and not try to solve other problems which weren't a part of my original goal.
My view. As you can see, it has a lot of compositional potential. I chose to just focus on the fountain, because my panel was so small and my original aim had nothing to do with elements other than the fountain. It's all about defining a problem to solve, and sticking to it.
Here's a shot of my palette. Clockwise from bottom left; Ultramarine, Cobalt blue, Titanium White, Cad Lemon, a warm yellow (Cad Lemon + Transparent Oxide Red), Permanent Red, Alizarin, Transparent Oxide Red, and violet (Ultramarine + Permanent Red + White). To this I sometimes add Viridian, but usually only in the springtime when the hills in California turn emerald. By June, Viridian is off the palette.
So that's it for my little trip to Porterville. I have hundreds of new reference photo to go through, and hopefully can get started on the big painting soon. That depends on how soon my studio becomes clear of the flooring material and construction junk. *sigh* Still no light at the end of that tunnel.