Mountain and Desert Travels With Paintbox: Part 1

The past month I've been trying to bring the paint box along with me more on trips and pause for an hour or two at certain spots to paint a landscape or a study of a part of a natural feature. Since I live in the Nevada Desert, any sort of travel means I have to drive through some beautiful countryside, so I have been determined to paint more of it (and sketch it too). In this 3 part series I show some of my methods and the resulting open-air oil paintings.

Twenty or so years ago when I took my paint box outdoors to do oil studies it was this large and somewhat clunky old paint box:

This served me well over the years, and it held everything I needed, but it was large and heavy--too heavy really to take on a hike. I usually sat on a chair or on the ground and set this paint box on the ground near me or on a table--no tripod in those days. Today there is a large array of small, light-weight, and well-designed paint boxes of all kinds to choose from. Many come with a backpack or carrying case with a shoulder strap to take into the field. Just right for small oil paintings and sketches. We really are lucky to live in this renaissance of plein air painting.

During the last month, my first stop was the western Nevada desert near Mt. Jackson and Lida--a lonely stretch of transitional desert scrubland between the Mojave and Great Basin deserts with mesas, mountain ranges, and wide basins filled with salt playas. Just my kind of place to hang out for a few hours. I set up my tripod and paint box among the scattered saltbush (Atriplex) and other shrubs that dotted the foreground, melding into a pale green-gray into the far distant basin.

The set-up I used was a simple Sienna paint box with tripod, along with a backpack full of supplies and wet canvas box to hold the finished painting. I didn't venture too far off the dirt roads, I didn't need too. The sun was setting and I had limited time to capture the light and shadows before night set in, and the scenery was ripe for painting. 

I like to start any outdoor painting with a quick drawing to map out the main lines and some shadows--in this case I focused in on some distant hills and drew them with a reddish Conte crayon on a gessoed panel.

Then I washed in a thin underpainting to block in the shadows, in this case Ultramarine blue plus Burnt sienna thinned with turpentine. I added some light areas with yellow ochre, also thinned. The shadows were moving so I couldn't dawdle too long on details.

Next I added copal painting medium and went over the entire picture again with thicker oil paint to do a second layer (overpainting). Now I added white to the yellow ochre to go over the sunlit parts of the scene. I kept the shadows thin with no white--only painting medium, and tried to refine the details. You can see that the shadows have now overtaken the landscape as the sun set, and I have lost the light. This was the time I decided to pack up and take the unfinished painting back to the studio.

Loading the oil painting into the wet canvas box with slots to hold the panel so the paint will not smear, I am ready to drive home.

Stay tuned as I decide how to finish this oil study back in the studio--the location is too far and remote to drive back to. I think I will add a light bluish sky color to this painting and call it a day. I can work from memory on the sky (and past experience painting skies during this hour of the day). I don't want to add too much more detail, because I have had the experience of trying to do this and wrecking a painting. Sometimes it is best to just let your outdoor oil painting alone, keep it for the qualities you observed outside in the light and judging color. I have many such oil sketch studies in my studio that I use for reference material. Camera photographs do not capture the properties I am seeking, so these outdoor oil sketches are very valuable to me.

In the next installment I will show you how I painted a study of the Sierra Nevada snowpack along the crest just east of Sonora Pass. In this painting I decided to carry the painting further by adding more detail, so that it is a finished piece worthy of hanging on the wall.


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