Industrial Cathedral

Industrial Cathedral
"Industrial Cathedral" charcoal drawing on paper 131 x 131 cm Jane Bennett. This drawing was a finalist in the 1998 Dobell Prize for Drawing (Art Gallery of N.S.W.) ; Finalist in 1998 Blake Prize for Religious Art ; Winner of 1998 Hunter's Hill Open Art Prize

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Lashed to the Mast" - Plein Air painting as extreme sport

I wanted to try painting a large canvas of the spectacular view of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf for my solo exhibition "From the Hungry Mile to Barangaroo" which is now on display at the Frances Keevil Gallery.
I never do anything by halves, so I got the biggest canvas that would fit inside my station wagon - 122 x 183cm!

suitcase with studio equipment of plein air artist Jane Bennett
My Artist's Studio in a suitcase
I always pack my paint, brushes and other necessary items such as lunch into trolley luggage, as it is less of a strain on my back than carrying a bag. When I use a small easel, such as a French box easel, I also pack it into trolley luggage so I can roll or drag it rather than have to carry it.
I was worried about the canvas going hang-gliding over Sydney Harbour, or even snapping in two which happened while I was painting the Sydney Heritage Fleet from Blackwattle Bay.

The solution was to take a studio easel as well as a French box easel, and to use cable ties to secure the canvas to the studio easel, and the easel to a large chunk of timber.

The most important thing is not to forget to bring a good sharp pair of scissors to remove the cable ties!
The studio easel had casters so I could move it around without too much trouble. I used the French box easel to store my paint, medium and brushes.

canvas tied to studio easel by plein air painter Jane Bennett
I've had to cable tie the large canvas to my studio easel
The renowned 19th century marine painter J.M.W.Turner used to boast that he was once "lashed to the mast" to witness a storm at sea as inspiration.
canvas tied to studio easel by plein air painter Jane Bennett
I've had to cable tie the large canvas to my studio easel- and then cable tie the easel to a timber block!
I've always loved Turner's paintings and now I feel that I am literally following in his footsteps!
timber block and easel used by plein air painter Jane Bennett
Timber block and easel
Quite literally.
Like Turner,who also had a predilection for painting enormous canvases, I'm also very short, so I had to stand on this useful block of wood so I could reach up to paint the sky!

timber block and easel used by plein air painter Jane Bennett
Timber block and easel used by plein air painter Jane Bennett
It felt like a long way down!

Starting a large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
Starting a large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf about 7.30am.
I like to prime the canvas with a coloured ground before I paint. This technique is called "imprimatura" and it helps to reduce the glare reflected by a white canvas outdoors, as well as giving more depth to the tones.
Usually I prime a canvas blue when I'm about to paint Sydney Harbour, but this black primed canvas was originally intended for an interior of the Eveleigh Railway workshops.
Another essential ingredient is really good coffee, as you can see from the plunger on the chair. I always pack a non-leaking thermos of hot water in my trolley luggage. Unfortunately the milk has to be longlife UHT milk, as fresh milk will go off in the sun by the afternoon, and there isn't always any shade where I paint, as I mostly paint on wharves or industrial sites. 

Starting a large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
My large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf at about 8am
Black actually turned out to be a good choice. 
The day started bright and sunny, but the clouds gathered quickly. 
The calm morning Sydney Harbour seascape I had originally intended to paint was soon transformed into a brooding study of an impending storm.

Starting a large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
My large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf at about 9am
 Plein air painting is full of abrupt changes of mood and direction, which is why I enjoy it so much.
It feels almost as much like a sport as art.
The amount of physical strength involved in just being able to handle a canvas of this size out in the open air is surprising. I have to work out just so I can keep lugging my easels up and down stairs.
The other thing that is underestimated by the people who view the finished canvas in a pristine white-walled gallery, is the amount of concentration required to sustain the atmosphere over the hours required to finish a work of this size.

Starting a large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
My large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf at about 9.30am
 Light, shadow and colours of the sea and sky change constantly, and it takes the reflexes of an elite tennis player to even attempt to capture these fleeting effects.
Starting a large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
My large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf at about 10am
Apart from the skill needed to paint these fleeting effects, it also takes a great deal of experience and judgement to decide which are worth capturing.
My large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf at about 11am
 By noon, I had most of the canvas painted,and it was looking very promising, but an hour later the weather had changed dramatically.
Dark clouds started to cover the sky and the sea changed colour from turquoise to prussian blue, then to slate grey.
The wind whipped up, and I had to decide whether it was too risky to continue.
Starting a large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
My large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf at about noon

If I decided to continue the painting on another day with similar weather conditions, there was the risk of not being able to complete it in time for my exhibition. On the other hand, if I pressed on, it might get so windy that it would be physically dangerous to keep on painting.

I had almost as much canvas to cope with as some of the smaller yachts out on the harbour, who were starting to have trouble.
And if I wasn't careful, my canvas would have travelled just as fast in the wrong direction!

Starting a large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
My large plein air painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf at about noon
 Also, the colour, mood and light conditions were so different from when I started that it would mean repainting almost everything!
The sensible choice probably would have been to put the canvas away and start a small study of the stormy conditions.
But I liked the dramatic light effects so much that I took a calculated risk and quickly repainted the canvas to reflect the changed conditions.

plein air oil painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett

The completed canvas
'Storm, Goat Island' 2013 oil on canvas 122 x 183cm
I had to work very quickly. I didn't dare take a break for lunch in case my canvas wouldn't be there when I got back.
But I'm glad that I took the risk, as the canvas has really captured the colour and mood.
The brilliant yellow buoys surrounding the excavation of the North Barangaroo Headland Park contrast strongly with the ominous sky and dark, choppy sea.

plein air oil painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
'Storm, Goat Island' 2013 oil on canvas 122 x 183cm
 Art vs. life!


plein air oil painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
'Storm, Goat Island' 2013 oil on canvas 122 x 183cm
This photo best shows the painting in context with the landscape.
However large the canvas actually is, it will always look like a postage stamp compared with the real thing. I can assure you that this canvas is a lot bigger than I am!(I am 5' 1" which is fairly short even for a girl.)
By the time I took these photos, I was so worried about the canvas blowing away that I had to cable tie it to the container - I didn't dare risk putting it on the easel!

plein air oil painting of Goat Island from Moore's Wharf by artist Jane Bennett
'Storm, Goat Island' 2013 oil on canvas 122 x 183cm

And finally a few days later, here it is hanging in my solo exhibition "From the Hungry Mile to Barangaroo" at the Frances Keevil Gallery. 
 
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