A Vision of Segovia – Spain - an oil painting demonstration by Alan Bickley
A Vision of Segovia, Spain
A Vision of Segovia, Spain was painted en plein air on one of my frequent visits to Spain, this fairly complex scene with its large array of typically Mediterranean ochre coloured buildings made the perfect composition. But as always, I’ve not concentrated on any great degree of detail, it’s more about trying to capture something of the ambience of the scene, which was completed over two sessions on consecutive days.
A Vision of Segovia, Spain, oil on MDF 20 x 20in (508 x 508cm)
I rarely paint on a white background, so I’d previously toned down my white gessoed MDF panel a day or two earlier so that it would be bone dry, using a wash of burnt sienna and titanium white. This gave me a gorgeous warm earth colour to work on, exactly what I was after for this particular scene, and I knew that some of this colour would show through in the finished piece, helping to maintain some degree of continuity throughout the painting – always helpful!
Using a small round pointed brush, I wasted no time in establishing the main outlines of the buildings with a thin mixture of raw umber. It’s important in these early stages to make sure that the buildings stand upright, particularly on the tallest tower!
I then rapidly blocked in the darkest areas of shadow – this immediately gave some degree of solidity and depth to the painting. So far so good, the composition sat well on this square format and I felt that I’d made a promising start.
This is the critical point where you need to stand back and assess your composition and layout, making any changes that are necessary before proceeding. This could be simple minor tweaks, but there are occasions when you may need to move the horizon, eyeline or focal point of the whole image, but it has to be done at this stage. If it’s not right now, the finished painting won’t sit right either.
When working outdoors it’s essential to record the main elements quickly, shadows in particular are so important, as the light will have changed dramatically after a couple of hours, probably less. That’s the main reason I work rapidly and spontaneously when outdoors - my aim is to complete a painting of this size and complexity in around four or five hours, this involved two separate sessions for this painting. My outdoor work consists mainly of simple working oil sketches, either to finish off in the studio if I’m unable to return to the same spot, or more often used as reference for a new studio painting.
Still using the same thin wash of burnt sienna with a touch of ultramarine, I blocked in the distant mountain range and reworked the walls and shadows of the buildings, building my paint up in layers, which is the format I use when developing all my paintings. I then indicated some areas of foliage to the foreground.
I’ve mentioned this on many occasions in my numerous features, but it is important to work on the whole painting from the outset. Try and establish the main forms and structures as soon as possible and don’t scratch around on small isolated areas, that just doesn’t help, particularly when time is a critical factor, as it generally is when working plein air.
The introduction of more colour was next on the agenda. I warmed up the roofs of the buildings, then started to indicate some of the lighter parts of the stone walls. I generally leave the lightest highlights until the final stage, it’s much easier to see where these need to be placed. Remember, it’s very important that you don’t scatter highlights all over the painting, you will not only lose the impact, but will be confusing on the eye.
Most of these walls were a natural warm stone colour, built from rock, with a few buildings that had been rendered and painted in varying shades of ochre, all harmonising nicely though. For some relief from the warm earth colours, a cool mix of phthalo green and varying degrees of ultramarine was used to further establish areas of foreground foliage. Phthalo green is extremely strong and vibrant, perfect for adding some spice and contrast to a Mediterranean scene, but it must be used sparingly and not straight from the tube.
The mountain needed strengthening a touch, I wanted it to act as a dark and cool backdrop against the warmth of the buildings – warm and cool colours work well together.
Now to block in that expanse of sky, not forgetting to blend in the hard mountain edge where it meets the horizon. I scrubbed in some further foliage to the foreground area, keeping detail to an absolute minimum. I am always careful not to detract from the focal point of the composition, which was the wonderful Gothic Cathedral tower and its buildings, helping to lead the viewers eye nicely through the composition.
I then reworked the deeper shadows of the buildings, using a mix of burnt sienna, quinacridone violet, with a hint of cobalt blue. Warm mixes of earth colours were added to the buildings, giving them a bit more solidity.
Finally, the final highlights were added to some of the buildings, before adding a few windows, keeping them simple and random - detail at this distance will completely destroy a painting. The foliage was given a touch more colour, and after brushing in a few small feathery clouds to break up the sky mass, it was time to call this one complete. As I mentioned in an earlier paragraph, these are only intended as working sketches, and not finished paintings, although the immediacy of working plein air does, in my opinion, add its own unique style to a painting.
A few final thoughts … Working both plein air and alla prima is a challenge in itself. Not only do you have to contend with the outdoor elements, you are adding wet paint over wet paint, and that can create its own problems, picking up layers of colour underneath being the obvious one. All my initial brush work in this demonstration was applied thinly, no medium, just neat English distilled turpentine. This evaporated in the warm Mediterranean climate within minutes, so that issue didn’t arise on this occasion. Generally speaking, if you apply your paint by working from thin to thick you shouldn’t encounter any major problems. If you do pick up paint from a previous layer, which is inevitable, this can often yield some interesting results, so use these to your advantage. Don’t worry about any working lines showing through from your initial drawing out stage, these can add interest and shows the development – leave them! It’s always worth mentioning again, but when painting outdoors, I’m not looking to produce a ‘masterpiece’ each time. Simply to say something about the scene that first inspired me. It doesn’t matter how the final painting turns out – as long as I’ve enjoyed the experience and have something to show for my effort. Mistakes will be part of the painting process for all of us, disappointment at times of course, but we aren’t looking for perfection, we can’t, and don’t strive to achieve that! Working plein air is such an enjoyable experience. It allows me more freedom to express the scene in front of me without the restrictions of say working from my own photographs in a studio environment. Time is always the main criteria due to changing light and weather conditions, so working with more urgency than when I’m in the studio will often bring out the best in me – well most of the time!