Toshi Esumi


Every single life is colorful. Human, animals, plants, landscape as a whole ....

       Studies and Plein Air

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Plein Air

   As an urbanscape artist William Wray suggests “...spending as much time outside as inside in order to capture true color and light...,” I load my car with my sketching and painting stuff as well as a digital camera then drive away wherever I want to go that weekend unless it’s raining. It doesn’t mean I go outside every weekend especially in fall and winter in NW. You know what I mean...

   “Plein Air” is ultimate studies for a painter whose subjects are mainly landscapes. It takes different kinds of skills from studio painting due to specific constraints, such as canvas size, time you can spend on-site, changing light, and so on. I regularly use 12”x16” stretched canvas for plein air. I made a rack that can carry three wet canvas of this size. If you go to a bigger size, you need to negotiate yourself to finish painting within the time you have there. I don’t spend more than two hours for one session. The size is appropriate for me to finish it with my current skills.

   “Plein Air” is wet-in-wet in nature. You can’t wait until a layer of painting dries up before putting another layer over it. Since lighter colors are more opaque than darker colors  in general in case of oil painting, you want to put darker colors first. 


Autumn in Wenatchee Valley (12”x16”) near Rocky Reach Dam


Columbia River near Quincy (12”x16”) 5 miles west from Quincy

Otherwise you would be struggling with making darker parts darker over wet lighter paint. This is what I’ve learned from Rachel Maxi and Jim Lamb in their workshop and demo.

   In addition to “wet-in-wet”, changing light is one of the biggest challenges in plein air. “Wanapum Lake” (left) was painted in the morning on a hot summer day. Weather was perfect. It however means the shadow of the trees on the island would become shorter and move toward left. Because I was looking toward east. I therefore didn’t paint shadow part at the beginning even though the part had one of darkest values.

   Last a year or so, I haven’t painted on a bigger canvas in studio without studying on site to capture and memorize real color coordination, harmony and contrasts with plein air painting. This effort benefitted me with having richness of colors, which you can’t get from reference photos. It helped me to make a big breakthrough.

   Eventually I want to be skillful enough to sell plein air pieces. But I’m very aware that there is a long way ahead and I need to spend much more time to get to the level. At this moment I’m just happy with adding qualities to my studio paintings by plein air effort.

Studies of colors

   Deciding colors in the context and making them are the most important and intriguing part of visual art creation regardless of the media an artist has chosen. “Shapes are not so important as long as colors are right” has been my mantra for quite a while after started showing my  

Yakima River (12”x16”) between Granger and Sunnyside


artworks to public. One of the reasons is because I still can’t get shapes right especially in early stages of painting process. But I also came to understand  that people who like my paintings like them because of color coordination and contrast on canvas or a paper. Not because shapes are exactly what they expect and want to see.  

    To learn about colors and color making, I go to classes, workshops, demos,  read magazines, books, watch videos and DVDs, then see how the other artists do. But you’ve got to experiment in the studio yourself to find your own way. Virtually every single artist has his/her own way of color making for wet media. I personally prefer making colors from limited colors. The outcome would tend to be more opaque and grayish. But much more natural and having depth.    


    It didn’t occur to me finding the way to create greenish green for background of landscape paintings until Rachel Maxi introduced me to a touch of Prussian blue with any kind of yellow at her workshop at Pratt. I’m still experimenting it to establish my own way.   

study (12”x16”) at Anne Olwin’s workshop

    On the other hand, pastel, which I occasionally try, requires a quite different discipline and skill to create color effects on the surface. They don’t mix basically. It’s up to viewer’s eyes to mix them when they watch at the work. A while ago, I took a workshop instructed by Deanna Holdren. In the workshop she taught us to judge chromatic value differences, like yellow is lighter than orange when you put the same amount of pigments on the surface. Then we experimented translating values, lighter or darker, into colors like the study, right. The still life objects were actually all painted in white. We used different colors to create cast shadow, reflections, and so on. Even though I haven’t applied this technique to any real works, this was a quite eye-opening experience to me. 

study (20”x17”) at Deanna Holdren’s workshop

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