Meet artist of the month, Lori Putnam (“Bold Brushstrokes and Confident Color”) Recognized for her expressive brushwork, contemporary compositions, and intelligent use of color, Nashville native Lori Putnam paints small to medium-sized works en plein air and creates large paintings in her studio. Having painted in 16 different countries and hundreds of small towns and villages, she believes the work created from life helps her maintain freshness in her studio paintings as well.
Art Notes:What does plein air painting give you as an artist? Why do you head outside to paint?
Lori Putnam:Knowledge — the number one thing I get when I paint outdoors. So many questions are answered right there in front of me. Value, color, and edge are the three biggies.
Art Notes: Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
Assuming you mean when painting outdoors, I’ll discuss a process that works really well for me.
First, I do as much planning as I feel I need on paper. Every situation is different. Sometimes I only need a rough thumbnail sketch and I’m on to the paint. I like to use markers for this so I don’t make a drawing instead of a sketch. I take as long as it takes to sort out potential problems before I ever touch the canvas.
One of the biggest problems outdoor painters have is getting values right. I’ll make notes on my sketch to indicate where in the scene I need to place my mid-value. My mixing surface is a mid-value, so I can compare anything darker or lighter to that. It is the cornerstone from which I measure everything else. Later, when I mix colors, I will then be able to tell if they are the right value relationship to my mixing area. Value problems solved.
When I feel confident I’ve sorted out all the gnarly decisions, I know I will also have answered the question about how best to begin. Most of the time that is by toning the canvas with a color I sense travels throughout the scene like a common thread. Sometimes that can be very chromatic, but not always. Think of it like cooking. You want a flavor that runs through the dish, not something disgusting. For instance, if you’re cooking a rich meat sauce, you may begin with onions and garlic. You wouldn’t start with the same ingredients if you were baking a lemon pie. That is why I do not pre-stain my canvas. I wait and react to what I see before me.
If I need to, I’ll draw a few marks or lines for placement. Again, not every painting is handled the exact same way. I think that’s important — to paint in a manner for which the scene calls. This could mean digging right in with just big masses and no lines at all. For this example, I’ll think of how I might approach a scene with strong light and shadow. I lay in a fairly thin layer for the shadow and one for the light, using my thumbnail sketch as my reference. These are really flat, graphic patterns. I work from large shapes to medium-sized shapes to small shapes, and all over the canvas at once. Usually I work from dark to light, but if the painting is very high-key or has only small shadow shapes, I may work the other way around. It’s important to continue to build up the paint with each breaking down of shapes by getting slightly thicker with each layer. I also use a softer brush and a softer touch and let the tools do all the work. That way the underlayers of paint only mix with the outer layers if I intentionally add a little more pressure. I like a progression of shapes in my work — some stay fairly large while others break down to medium and still others to small.
People ask how I know when I’m finished. I stand back from the easel fairly often, and when I find myself just making smaller shapes for no apparent reason, I stop. Most of the time, in fact, the last 25 percent of the process is taking out where I put in too many small shapes. Simpler is better for me.
Art Notes: What does a reference need to have for you to want to paint it? (And whatdon’t you need from it?)
A reference need only spark an idea. When I’m working in the studio, I try not to look too closely at the reference. In fact, I’d rather just paint from field studies and no photograph, or from a photograph that has just a little something to tickle my imagination. Then I can create, rather than copy.
Art Notes: How do you approach color? Do you use only local color, or do you change the color to make a better painting? How?
Depends. If I’m outdoors and working on my own for growth, I put down what I see. That’s the knowledge-gathering part. If, however, my job that day is to paint a great painting, I’ll make choices in the planning stage about where to put the most intense color and think about what that color will actually be, as well as choices on where I may need to sacrifice some color that is really in the scene by making it more neutral.
Art Notes: What’s the biggest challenge you see with students and color? What advice do you give them?
Everyone who studies with me wants to be more colorful. Usually, they are using too much color to begin with. My paintings are really pretty neutral, with some places slightly more intense. If you have a lot of neutrals, you do not need much chroma to make a painting really seem filled with it. Oftentimes, my workshops are taught with a primary palette of just three colors and white. Learning about colors happens on that level. Take the phthalo green and Prussian blue off your palette and just work with cad yellow, naphthol red, and ultramarine blue plus white for the next 50 paintings. You will be much better for it.
Art Notes: How do you think through the composition of your piece? What does a painting need to have to have a strong composition?
I view design and composition as different ideas. Design is the abstract. It involves balance (better yet, imbalance) and weight and ultimately supports the composition. The composition, on the other hand, must be put together in such a way as to tell the viewer what it is that you want to say. Everything in the composition should bring clearer understanding of the visual statement. Anything that does not strengthen the statement should not be part of the composition. It’s just detail. Leave it out.
I look for strong design first, and edit elements in the scene to support that. Students will ask me about my focal point. Not every painting’s statement needs one. I know … shock and awe. But it’s true. And if it does have a focal point, it doesn’t have to scream at you, “Hey, I’m the big red barn. Look at me.” There are more subtle ways to handle a focal point if it is your intention to have one.
Art Notes: Plein air painting can feel intimidating to a painter of any skill level. Any advice to a beginner?
Remember these things:
Plein air painting will be the toughest sport you’ve ever played. The reward is worth it.
You will get discouraged, bitten by bugs, rained on, and your easel will fall over and break. It is likely that all of this will happen on the same day. On day two, you’ll feel more successful because at least one of those things probably will not happen.
They don’t all turn out well. No matter what you think, not every painting actually works. That is true for every painter you can name …every painter. Ty Cobb batted .366 over 24 seasons, making his career batting average the highest in Major League Baseball. If, in the course of your career, you average four out of 10, you’re batting better than Ty.
The best news? Every painting has a lesson. Sometimes it is what to do; sometimes it is whatnot to do. Either way, it’s time well spent.
Art Notes: What do you want from your brushwork? How do you get that?
Movement or silence — every stroke has a purpose and is meant to evoke either one or the other. Having the right tools helps me do that. Each type of brush, its composition and its shape, offers unique mark-making, and it isn’t always what your first impression of the brush is. I experiment a lot with brushes and other tools and am always finding new ways to use them.
Students are often surprised to see how I use a specific brush. One thing is certain — a brush has many sides and surface areas. Because I use mostly those with the longest shapes (extra-long flats and egberts), I can really load the brush on all sides and hold it parallel to the painting surface. Then, by altering the pressure, I achieve whatever shape and edge I want. Understanding brush pressure and paint consistency is a steep learning curve. Because I love to paint wet-in-wet, one effect I particularly like is to use stiffer brushes such as Rosemary & Co Classic series in the earlier stages, then slowly move to slightly softer and slightly softer, like to the Ivory series, then the Evergreens, and finally either Master’s Choice or pure sable for the final layers.
Art Notes: How do you assess a piece after it’s finished?
The temptation is to immediately post it on Facebook. That is rarely a good idea. If it’s a studio piece, I may show some progress shots or create a video of the process, but setting it aside for a few days and then revisiting it is always a better choice. Many times, at the end of the day, I will think I really liked something. The next day I wonder what in the world I was thinking. Of course, it’s better when the opposite happens and the thoughts I have all night about how horrible a painting is turn out to be false when I wake up in the morning. If all of the shapes have been resolved to my satisfaction, then I know it is finished.
Learn more about Lori Putnam's video, “Bold Brushstrokes and Confident Color.”