Part 4, project 4, exercise 1: Painting outside – painting a landscape outside

Updated on 23 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

16 November 2016. There is a warm front travelling to come into Austria on Friday, so I need to be quick in order to plan and carry out my plein air painting exercise before more winter weather. There is a special place in our vicinity, a bit of woodland growing in a sandy pit in a restructured river basin. This place I chose before once for one of my Drawing 1 projects (Lacher-Bryk, 2015). Since I did not follow study guide instructions in the previous exercise (use and rework an existing painting), I decided that I would carry over this instruction to this exercise and apply it to the following drawing I made last year (Fig. 1):
Figure 1. Own drawing from OCA Drawing 1 course “Study of several trees”, ink pen, oil pastels and marker pens, 2015

I will make some preliminary sketches on site tomorrow (bad weather) and compare with what I have got, then quickly use the fair weather predicted for Friday to make a very rough painting with my largest brush to be completed outside. There is no plan to continue working on it in my workshop, so what I achieve outside will be what I get.

17 November 2016. Proceeding as planned, so setting off to the site just after lunchtime. The weather was very changeable, from overcast and some raindrops to sunshine and quite pleasantly warm and windy, so partly ideal for painting outside. I found the site mostly as it had been the year before, except that the sandy forest floor was covered in lots of brown autumn leaves and the incredible near-white sand and the contrast I had been looking for were invisible (I should have known better, being an ecologist and all that :o). I still took a set of photos of the spot, walking round to see whether other views might be attractive (Fig.2).

Figure 2

In the end I went for a beautiful view across the river with a small, eye-catching patch of white sand on the far bank and produced a landscape and a portrait format mini watercolour sketch (Fig. 3-5):

Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5. Sketchbook – watercolour sketches

Cycling back I went through the colour options and the research on Fauvism and Expressionism I had done earlier that day. At first I had wanted to use autumn colours as found on site, but then came up with another option including very light colours, basically warm and cool shades of grey on a darker background prepared with a mix of Paynes grey and small amounts of other colours I would like to use, so that in the end the objects of the painting would have clear dark outlines. We’ll see whether this is feasible.

18 November 2016. It is very warm today and windy – what is called a “Föhn” weather situation typical for the Alps. It gives lots of people headaches, but others like me get a wonderful break from the November drizzle. It also makes painting outside a bit more difficult, since we get quite strong gusts of wind. Before going out I did a greyscale test in my sketchbook in order to find the colours I would need to take with me (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Sketchbook – 50 shades of grey, more or less

Around lunchtime I left with my bike and 25 year old trailer full of painting materials and was extremely lucky to get to my site with the sun shining and the wind dropping (Fig. 7).

Figure 7

Here is my open air studio with prepared painting carton. I had a quantitiy of the mix used for the background with me and from this I mixed the rest of my colours. This system worked well, although I found that the conditions changing from bright sunshine to cloudy made my mixing results a bit arbitrary (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. Studio in the leaves

When I found that a hue would not fit the purpose I had intended it for, I used it intuitively in other parts of the composition.
Here is the first stage of the finished painting. Lying in the shade it looks rather blue, which it is not under proper lighting conditions (Fig. 9):

Figure 9. First stages of the finished painting

I had two full hours of painting, before it suddenly got very cold and I had to call it a day.
This is how far I got today. I quite like the “coarse” areas of colour in the centre (see detail of white tree across the river and tree stumps in the middle ground below) (Fig. 10-11).
Contrary to what I said earlier I think that I will do a little more work on the exercise in the workshop during the next few days (when there will be November weather and snow again) to try and carefully apply this technique to other parts of the composition.

Figure 10
Figure 11. Detail

20 November 2016. Today I spent some time trying to extend the discovered technique to the whole painting. Some of it appears successful, some of it not so. While I was quite happy with the changes to the light, especially by achieving a weird glow in the willow tree hanging over the river and the trees to the left, I think that the trees in the foreground need some more change, although I cannot yet think of what would be required (Fig. 12).

Figure 12. Finished painting

Commentary: “The experience of painting outdoors”

The work required for painting outdoors was not unfamiliar to me. I have done so on many occasions in the past. Although this was mostly watercolours, I knew what to bring and was able to plan ahead taking into acount the weather forecast. The most important piece of equipment is my bicycle trailer. It allows me to take along all necessary equipment apart from an easel, but when working outside I usually prefer sitting on a stool with the support lying on the ground in front of me. Although I know that the faithful copying of the things seen is probably easier on an easel, I appreciate the slightly longer interval between taking in the visual information and putting it on canvas as a very valuable creative break. Also, for me working from above the support results in a much looser brushmark that when standing in front of the easel.
Making linear and coloured thumbnail sketches with ink pen and watercolour, as well as testing the range of colours I wanted to bring in a small sketch using acrylics in my sketchbook, was immensely helpful when approaching the final work. It allowed me to develop in my mind a working “reflection” of the painting-to-be. Working on the final piece consisted of modulating my gathered experience by what came up on site. It was very enjoyable to see and feel this work and I guess that slowly these techniques come more naturally to me.
With regard to formal compositional rules I tested on a printout that to a relatively large extent elements of both the Rule of Thirds and more so the Golden Mean are present, as well as a working foreground – middleground – background construction. There is a pathway into the painting provided by the sandy area leading to the river and on across the river via the conspicuous white fallen tree and the mirrored white in the path leading away from the far side of the river. I also tried to include mirror structures and areas of colour: the white in the fallen tree and far side path, the violet in the smaller tree on the right and in the tangle of very young trees to the left, the turquoise of the river and the hanging tree, and also the shape of the fallen tree mirrored in the branch arching over the hanging tree. Also, I tried to include considerations of aerial perspective by gradually reducing detail as well as colour contrast and intensity. I was happy with the idea of having a selection of shades of grey mixed from an initial mix of Paynes grey, natural burnt umber, raw umber and white at the basis of the composition, since it allowed me to adapt with ease to different requirements and also this slightly aubergine hue went extremely well with all the colours introduced at later points (oriental blue, cadmium red, cadmium yellow medium, cobalt turquoise and black).
Overall I think that the outcome is quite satisfactory, although I am increasingly able to see the weak points in composition and choice of colour.
(514 words)


Lacher-Bryk, A. (2015) Part 3, project 1, exercise 3: Trees – study of several trees [blog] [online]. Andrea’s OCA study blog. Available at: [Accessed 16 November 2016]

Research point: Basic Principles of Composition

Updated on 22 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

19 November 2016. For me it always means to work against an inner resistance when required to look into breaking art down into formal mathematical principles. Of course I know about the value to be able to consciously apply rules of that kind, but I feel that it immediately stops dead my intuitive approach. In the context of the exercise “Painting a landscape outside” I therefore decided to go for a reversal of processes. I finished my painting and thereafter applied the compositional rules to it (for results see separate post) to see whether any of them appeared in it.

The Golden Mean or Divine Proportion is a ratio, a number equalling approximately 1.618 and given the mathematical symbol Greek phi Didot.svg (Phi). It pervades the measurable components of our universe and describes the overall relationship between numbers in the famous Fibonacci sequence o, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 ….. (Meisner, 2015). The latter is the compositional basis for an incredible number of naturally occurring complex structures. Such structures, from snail shells to human proportions, are felt as being harmonious and beautiful (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Helmut Haß: “Golden mean in a sunflower head”. Source: Helmut Haß [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported] via Wikimedia Commons
Both were arguably known and applied as early as in Ancient Egypt and Greece, but intensely researched, described and actively applied in art only during the Renaissance (Meisner, 2012). See a comprehensive collection of images showing examples from nature and art on Pinterest (n.d.) and an analysis of famous works in the history of art (Meisner, 2014a), including a video on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (Meisner, 2014b).
The Rule of Thirds, and the very similar phi-grid based on the Golden Mean (Christie, 2016), on the other hand, are rough guides to overall composition regarding the placement of the main objects in a painting. Renaissance artists had found that paintings with a central focal point provided a visual barrier against guiding the viewer through the composition and the results were often unpleasant to look at. In order to avoid the compositional “error” of placing the main object at the centre of the support, any format can be divided into nine equal rectangles and the most important elements are placed on, or near, the intersections. If the above rules are observed and used together with the equally important elements of foreground, middle ground and background, the result should be a composition offering both harmony and a story.

Personally I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with the above rules not only for the reason I mentioned in the first paragraph, but also for their treacherous simplicity (leading to compositional freezing) and for an effect becoming more obvious with the increasing complexity of a painting: there seem to be so many suitable points to apply the rules that it appears impossible not to find them fulfilled. This, of course, may only prove the truth of the theory. We are so much part of nature that in acts of creating and designing we probably tend to follow its rules by intuition, if (!) we are mentally (and maybe spiritually) connected with our works of art at the moment of making them. So, given a secure working knowledge of techniques and materials and a freely flowing, truthful conversation with my work of art, whatever rules are applicable I would like to see become manifest as a consequence of, and not a precondition to creating a work of art.


Christie, J. (2016) Rule of Thirds or Golden Ratio – which should you use? – Ep.25. Tea Break Tog. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Haß, H. (2004) Blütenstand einer Sonnenblume mit 34 und 55 Fibonacci-Spiralen [photo] [online]. Doris Haß, Koblenz. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Meisner, G. (2012) History of the Golden Ratio [online]. Gary Meisner, 13 May. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Meisner, G. (2014a) Golden Ratio in Art Composition and Design [online]. Gary Meisner, 4 May. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Meisner, G. (2014b) Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi and the Divine Proportion  [online]. PhiPoint Solutions, Brentwood. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Meisner, G. (2015) Golden Ratio Overview [online]. Gary Meisner, 12 July. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]

Pinterest (n.d.) 1:1.618/Golden Ratio [image collection] [online]. Pinterest. Available at: [Accessed 19 November 2016]