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Adding a Figure to a Plein Air Painting

Adding a figure into a composition-while you are painting it en plein air-is always a challenge. I prefer to work from live models on the scene, but models have a pesky habit of wanting to be paid or getting up and walking away. When that happens, I have to rely on memory or a quick cell phone pic.

This week in Plein Air Adventure class, the challenge was to add a figure from a reference photo into a garden scene. We met at the most beautiful gardens in Pinellas; Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.

I chose this figure:

The light is from the opposite side of the figure, and she's backlit. The colors from the garden are reflecting on her clothes. These are things I will need to change. I'm going to put her into this rose garden sitting on this bench:

First thing I notice is scale; how would her body fit into this scene. I use the hoops of the trellis as a guide and place her taking up half the bench and as high as the first clump of roses on the trellis. To do this, I start with a value sketch to show me how she would fit and how the light would look from this angle instead of in the photo.

Its a crappy sketch, but it gets the job done. I see about how she will fit, and about how the roses will frame her in the composition. But, I can't really see the light and color so I do a color study. This helps me change the light on the figure from backlit to side lit, and reflect some of the reds, pinks, and greens of the rose garden onto her clothing and skin.

Now I have a better idea of how she will fit into the scene, and the colors will reflect onto her. I start painting.

This is always fun in plein air! Onlookers peer over my should, then wave there hand in the empty rose garden, like there should be a woman reading there. I get comments like

"Are you just making that up?" until I show them my sketches, and "Are you painting a ghost?"

I suppose it is a little creepy to paint something that isn't there, but the fact that the onlookers think she is means I'm on the right track with the lighting and color. By the time I took this photo (and did this painting) two hours had passed so the lighting was totally different in the scene. Scroll back up to see the actual scene. Here's the finished piece:

OK not totally finished, I need to do some tweaking on the figure, but this was as much as I could do en plein air. Next weds. our challenge is to pick a live person from the scene and add them into the painting. This means working quickly from life! If you are up for a plein air challenge, join us at Heritage Village from 12-3pm next Weds. for Plein Air Adventure!

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