356: Plein Air Painting with Palette Knives

—I’VE been involved in art all my life. I have illustrated book covers, executed editorial work for publications such as the New York Times, and had a career as a fine art woodcut artist. But painting en plein air was my most difficult artistic challenge. After years of struggle, I recently crossed a threshold with my plein air work.

Morning on the Virgin River, 14″ x 18″, Plein air, oil on canvas.

Not every painting I paint en plein air is a success. But every painting is now a learning experience, and painting a good painting is no longer a mystery to me. I enter the prospect of painting outdoors without the trepidation I once experienced. I wrote about minimizing anxiety in an article for Plein Air Magazine online (read the article here).

Smashing the mental barrier was critical to my plein air success, but subsequent technical breakthroughs were equally valuable. For the Oil Painters of America show in St. George, Utah, I decided it would make sense to use a quick-drying paint. Such paint would make the paintings easier to handle and keep the back of my car tidy, which was functioning as a mobile studio.

I like Gamblin Color’s commitment to low-toxicity. So I opted to use their Fast Matte Oil colors, which have a fast drying time and come in familiar pigments I use in the studio. I loaded my paintbox with my usual selection in Fast Matte oils. When I found a beautiful site along the Virgin River, I began mixing and applying color with my favorite palette knife.

I had used Fast Matte oils before but usually to add a last-minute touchup, glaze, or signature when I needed the paint to be dry for a show. I had never used Fast Matte for every color on my palette. I found the slightly stiffer paint to work surprisingly well with palette knives. I discovered that the butteriness so essential to brush painting was a detriment when using a knife.

Not only did the paint have a beautiful viscosity, but the paint also stiffened quickly on the canvas. The initial layer of paint was ready for impasto overpainting in the short time typical of plein air painting. Such structural consistency happens in the studio only after hours of working and letting the paint stiffen on the canvas. Additionally, the paint did not get excessively soft in the blistering Utah sun like so many other brands (such softening can be the death knell to effective palette knife painting).

The light blue stroke was painted with Gamblin Fast Matte oils mixed with G-gel over a stiffer undercoat of pink paint.

In some cases, I had to add a bit of Gamblin Gel to the impasto overpainting. Additional medium made the paint softer and allowed the color to skim over the bottom layer in the fashion I enjoy and critical to my style (see the second photo).

Such discoveries allowed me to paint at a level far exceeding my previous abilities painting en plein air. There were added benefits, such as not having to add thickening mediums to my paint (which can be messy and time-consuming in the field). I preferred to let Gamblin mix the proper amount of thickeners to the paint while ensuring maximum color saturation.

The result was that I achieved a simplified and enjoyable painting process, and painted four gallery-worthy paintings in two days. Unfortunately, three of the paintings were disqualified for being too large. The painting that got into the show was the first to sell—the only proof I needed, besides the enjoyment I felt while painting, that my new technique was working.

It was interesting that my desire to have my paintings dry quickly in the field led to discovering how to paint with thick paint en plein air. As usual, the simplest solutions are often the best.

Let me know about your experience with these materials.

Brad Teare —July 2019

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Updated: 17th January 2022
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