Friday, July 10, 2015

Painting Wild Horses in the Field with Karen McLain or "En Plein Air"

“All pictures painted inside in the studio will never be as good as the things done outside.”
-Paul Cezanne

I have a rule about not looking at all the photos from a summer trip until they have been backed up at least twice. Sure I scan through them but not really look too closely until all 30,000+ photos are safely backed up on my new 6TB hard drive and up in the Carbonite Cloud. So as I wait, not very patiently, for the over 400,000 files to transfer to the new hard drive... I sat back and remembered the trip...


Karen at McCullough Peaks 2014


Watching Karen McLain paint horses during the Mustang Walkabout 2015 was educational and interesting. I admit I know nothing about painting anything aside from a summer job painting houses on Long Island Sound... And perhaps a set or two from a play or musical, but that's the limit of my painting skill. I do, however, like to understand the process from a more scientific background since that's my training, thus I asked Karen numerous questions.

“When you're on the spot, you're seeing the best values, the cleanest color and real edges. You're also seeing objects in a wonderful light, and you're much more apt to paint a clear, un-muddied picture.”
-Wayne E. Wolfe


Karen paints en plein air, or in the field with live subjects and as a photographer of wild horses, I can tell you they don't stand still, not at all. Even when they don't move their feet, they are swishing at flies, or turning their heads. When they do move their feet, it is challenging to keep them in the lens field, let alone try to paint them accurately. But somehow Karen accomplishes just that. She keeps a camera handy to shoot reference photos just in case her subjects spook or decide the grass is indeed greener elsewhere. I asked her why doesn't she simply concentrate on getting a good reference shot and painting at her studio in a more relaxed and leisurely manner.
Here's what she said...

Karen paints at Sand Wash Basin
Painting from a photograph is useful and sometimes necessary if your subject is not local or endangered or simply not readily accessible. However danger comes with painting a photograph and not the actual subject represented in the photograph- and therefore inaccuracies may be introduced and perspective is lost. There is a critical difference in painting a three-dimensional object as opposed to a two-dimensional representation and it shows in the finished painting.  Karen explained that being there, at the moment the paint is first put to canvas, is critical in understanding the light, the shadows, ambient light, reflected light, and negative shapes (I'm still not sure what these 'negative shapes' are- they are elusive but they much sought after by painters). After some musing, I think painting from a photograph- without the memory of actually being there- is much like me photographing a photograph. It can be done, especially those with great skill, but something essential is missing from the finished piece...

“As difficult as it is painting outdoors, there is no where else I'd rather work - all the answers stand right before you. You may need to move some things around, but it is still all right there in front of you. A bit like taking an open book test.” 
-William F. Reese

All of these features combine and Karen paints 'in the moment'; very much in the Buddhist tradition of the here and now or the present moment. She finishes the vast majority of the painting in the field because she says the paintings looks very different when she brings them indoors and so the essence must be captured as swiftly as she can manage. One would think the painting would look hurried and inaccurate but Karen practices endlessly. She attends numerous workshops, studies techniques, she is well-versed in equine anatomy surpassing even my prodigious knowledge base on that topic, and she spends a great deal of time studying her subjects both in the field and with her horses in their paddocks at home. A strong understanding of equine ethology is critical in representing them faithfully in art. Endless exercises on a white board to hone her accuracy and speed, Karen draws, erases and redraws horses: standing, walking, grazing, interacting, fighting. And she wipes a lot of paintings off when they don't quite measure up... literally or figuratively.


Painting Picasso -Sand Wash Basin 2015
I watched her prepare her palette. To me it looked like orderly blobs of colour along the circumference of a glass rectangle with the centre area reserved for mixing these fascinating blobs. Each management area has a unique palette of colours. The Pryors need more green; the bright grass green and the darker pine green with the occasional purple lupine and white or yellow asters.  The McCullough Peaks have rich red rock and Sand Wash Basin is soft pastels of brown, cream, tan, sage and slate blue. Even the horses found at each location have customized palettes- the Pryors are abundant in primitive colours- duns, blacks, deep bays, smokey grullas, and the creamy palominos of the Cloud family. Spring Creek Basin is awash in greys, duns, buckskin and dark bays. The Salt River horses have few greys and no paints so the concentration is on chestnuts and bays as well as the river itself. McCullough Peaks and Sand Wash Basin are the most brilliant with paints, overos, tobianos, dilutions, sooty, splashed whites and every other conceivable coat colour combination. The time of day and the weather also influence the choice of colours Karen selects for each palette.





It is almost magical watching her paint swiftly and decisively that I think, only comes after years and years of practice. I marvel at her ability to turn squiggles and lines into a horse standing in front of me. It is pretty amazing. Please view Karen's beautiful paintings at her website and/or Facebook Page 

-Meredith
Equus ferus Wild Horse Photography
July 2015

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