This past weekend I took a plein air workshop instructed by Ward Schell. Schell was born and raised in Saskatchewan and has made his living as a professional artist since the early 19080s. he has studied at the Emily Carr School of Art and at the University of Regina. Schell is a popular instructor and workshop facilitator who has offered numerous courses through the Art Gallery of Regina (formerly the Rosemont Art Gallery). His studio work is collected by public and private collectors throughout Canada. However, literally millions of people see his work every year (sadly, most never know it!) because for over the past 10 years Schell has made his living as a diorama artist – painting backgrounds for habitat dioramas in natural history museums, dinosaur parks, and other amusement parks.
Ward Schell at Work. Image from the artist’s business card. Copyright, Ward Schell.
Ward brought a sample of his own plein air work from a recent trip to Provence and it was a beautiful painting of a sunlit building in a yard with olive trees and poppies lining a lovely sweeping lane into the yard. He made a comment about having come to terms with his “illustrative style” and I know what he meant, but his work looked painterly realistic to me (if you understand my meaning). I’d love to be able to show you a sample of his “small” work, but Ward is one of those artists whose work sells by word of mouth and he doesn’t have a website. I also made a conscious decision not to take a camera with me to the workshop because I’ve learned the hard way that when I’m in photographer mode I’m no longer in the moment paying attention to what I’m actually doing, so you’ll have to take my word that his small work was every bit as impressive as his murals. At any rate, the workshop was excellent, and I learned a lot about working en plein air.
Some information from the workshop included:
– Ward’s plein air palette: titanium white, alizarin crimson, cadmium red medium, cadmium yellow medium, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, pthalo green, pthalo blue, ultramarine blue, and dioxine purple.
– “One day [painting] in the outdoors will do more for your art than months in the studio”.
– Stop working on your painting when you think you are 80% complete because you’re probably actually 90 – 100% complete and just can’t see it.
– Take advantage of a toned painting surface to harmonize the light in your painting.
Ward also mentioned that he approaches each new piece from the perspective of think, plan, do, and reflect:
– THINK about what it is you’re trying to accomplish/say/capture with this painting. Find a focal point in the landscape for your painting and use your viewfinder to frame a strong composition.
– PLAN how you’re going to complete the painting. Be aware of where the sun will move through the sky as you work: How will this affect the light and shadows? Make a thumbnail sketch of the light and shadow. Make a quick monochromatic underpainting of your composition and lights and darks before you dive in to the colour.
– DO the painting (quickly). Remember that a plein air painting is a summary of the essentials in the landscape – “Central focus is the main course, everything else is just dessert.”
– And when complete, REFLECT on what you learned from this particular painting experience. From start to finish, what parts of the process would you repeat? What would you change?
And what of my own efforts from the workshop? Well, I’ve read somewhere that plein air painters have a saying, “Every time you paint outside you either come away with a painting or a lesson.” And let’s just say that this weekend I came away with several great lessons…