Nicholas O’Leary pushes plein air painting to its limits by making works at the dead of night, deep in snow and out in the wilderness as well as capturing more traditional street scenes, summery coastlines and calming forests. His work encompasses a rare and incredibly skilled rendering of time and movement – we caught up with him to find out more about how his practice of painting outside has influenced his general views on painting.
Debbie: Your plein air paintings somehow manage to capture landscapes in a fleeting, rare state of equilibrium – your careful depiction of these moments really give a sense of all the noise, movement and uncontrollable factors that had to balance and come together to form such an intimate, still and beautiful moment. How do you achieve this when working from a subject that’s constantly changing in front of you and what makes you choose your subjects?
Nicholas: Thank you, I’m sure any painter that works en plein air would be thrilled to hear that. Choosing the subject for me goes hand in hand with image design and composition. So I rarely go out painting with a specific subject in mind. Rather, I pick an area and then go out hunting for a composition. Finding these compositions for me is what I struggle with the most. Sargent said that he could find something to paint anywhere. This thought haunts me every time I find myself walking for hours or the entire day without starting a painting.
For me, the way the overall image is designed is the single biggest contributing factor to the subsequent success or failure of a painting.
The dynamic nature of painting outside adds difficulty in the hunt for a composition as it may be a moment which has not yet arrived but will probably or potentially arrive. For example, one can roughly approximate where shadows will begin to fall in an hours time, and what elements will begin to catch the light.
To give the illusion of catching a moment in time the different elements in the painting need to all look as if they were captured in paint at the same time. This means they need to look like they have the same light direction and colour, the same atmospheric effects, etc. Is the sun going to stay out until the end of the painting? If so how much will the sun angle change in the next few hours? Where will this change be most visible? And when and how should this part of the painting be approached? Of course dealing with these issues is a challenge and usually requires some speedy painting in a strategic way.
I can also say that when deciding upon a potential composition I want to make sure that it is an appropriate difficulty level for me. I don’t do plein air painting in order to produce a mountain of paintings. I do it to progress and grow. So I would very rarely do anything that I have done before or anything that I am overly confident about. But at the same time if I produce too many failures in a row I start to get demotivated. So I do want there to be a fair chance the painting will work out.
Debbie: How long does a plein air painting tend to take you? Do you ever return to the same landscape?
Nicholas: They usually take a couple of hours. In sunny weather, a painting needs to be done a lot quicker to keep the lighting consistent throughout the various elements in the painting. But I can drag the process out in some situations. With nocturne paintings not so much tends to change in terms of lighting, particularly in the dark Norwegian winters, so I take as long as I need and don’t rush. Occasionally I return to finish off a painting, but very rarely. I usually only return if I was trying something difficult or different and ended up changing or reworking things. I would also return if there was a change in the weather or some other obstacle that I didn’t foresee which prevented me from finishing the painting in one hit.
Debbie: I noticed hints of underwashes shining through your plein air work – how do you build up your paintings? Do you start with a completely blank canvas when you paint outside or do you prime them with washes in your studio first?
Nicholas: For plein air I use canvas panels, and gesso them with a few layers to get them a bit smoother. This allows the brush strokes to be more fluid and last longer. I hate it when I have to scrub the paint into the canvas to fill in the deepest parts of the textured canvas. It eats precious time.
About the wash, I have no fixed rule, but I do find a warm wash tends to look good as a base. I would ideally like those washes to be in thinned out oil paint, but I usually leave them to the last minute. This means, for the most part, I end up doing the wash in acrylic just before I walk out the door, so it dries fast.
The subsequent painting process is not so layered. When I arrive on site, I quickly paint in a few key elements with a thin layer of paint, so as everything lands in place. After that, it’s just a mad rush to get everything down.
Debbie: You’ve painted plein air in some rather rough terrains such as on mountains and in the snow – what tools do you take with you to shield you from nature while you work? Do you have any tips on how to set up your space when you’re working in these environments?
Nicholas: It is hard to stay warm because I’m standing still for hours in sometimes freezing conditions. I try to take as many warm clothes as I can fit in my backpack. I also do starjumps every so often to warm up if it’s really cold and no one is around 🙂 However, I don’t wear gloves as holding the brushes feels strange with them on, so I still get cold hands.
The main problem painting outside always seems to be the wind. Especially if you use a lightweight easel like me. I have seen many painters hang their bag under their easel to weigh it down. This seems like a good universal approach. Personally I always want to go into my bag for things, and in the end, there is nothing left in my bag, so I tend not to do this. Sometimes I hang a big rock or some sand in another bag under my easel. I have also attached strings to the bottom of my easel’s legs so that I can use tent pegs to pin it down. And if I am in a bushy terrain and there is no other way, I have clamps with which I clamp my easel to the bushes.
Debbie: You also make studies of your house and set up little still life works – does working in a more controlled environment such as indoors have an impact on your work?
Nicholas: Certainly working in a controlled environment allows the freedom to try something else without the daunting pressure of having to paint at top speed. It allows me time to observe things more closely, change things, and to work in layers. For example, at one stage I had been intending to start including vertical perspective in my plein air paintings, but I felt like it was difficult to observe and I was struggling to work out an approach that worked for me. The painting of my kitchen was the first painting I had used vertical perspective in, and I had to rework the underpainting a few times over 3 consecutive nights before I finally found a method that seemed to do the job quickly.
Debbie: What mediums do you work in when painting plein air and why?
Nicholas: I started working in oils for plein air mainly out of convenience, as it is what I usually use in the studio. However, I have continued with them because I like that they stay wet during the entire painting process and that achieving accurate colours is relatively easy. But the difficulties with oil paint, the associated mediums, and the subsequent wet oil paintings pose for travelling can be a problem. I have seen a lot of artists achieving fantastic results with gouache lately and would love to give that a go.
Debbie: Which method of painting do you feel makes a more accurate representation of a subject: working plein air/from life or working from sketches, photographs and other materials in the studio? Why?
Nicholas: From a photograph, you can get in all the details you could ever want and it freezes time. So in that sense, it represents a subject accurately. But photographs do distort perspective and alter colours and values in relation to how they are observed from life. When painting from life the values, colours and perspective are no longer an issue, but time is. Daylight changes and models get tired. I use sketches and photos as references sometimes when working in the studio but always paint from life if possible.
Debbie: The marks you made in your self-portrait and Sitting Study seem a lot softer than those in your landscapes – why do you think that is?
Nicholas: It’s just an issue of time. I have never had the time to really work into plein air paintings and soften them up. As a consequence, they have developed a style slightly different to my studio paintings.
Debbie: What shape and style of brushes did you use and do you vary them when you change painting subject?
Nicholas: Flat and filbert brushes are what I mainly use on all subjects. Both soft and hard. It sounds silly, but I love it when the brushes are new so I usually just go for my newest brush, use it as the primary brush for a few paintings until its all splayed out of shape and then find another new looking brush.
Debbie: I love that you document your paintings within the landscape you made them on Instagram – would you display your work in the same way for other mediums of documentation, such as for an exhibition catalogue?
Nicholas: I do like to display them this way in catalogues 🙂 I feel Plein air is very a different game to studio painting, not only regarding to the challenges and limitations but also in the goal itself. This presentation method helps clarify the distinction between the two.
Debbie: You also create much larger, more conceptual paintings and work in mediums such as wood engraving, lino printing and drawing – does painting plein air influence the rest of your painting practice?
Nicholas: All the mediums greatly influence each other. Every time I return to a medium my process has changed based on the influence of the other mediums I have since used. As soon as I started wood engraving, I found I started to hatch in areas with very visible lines in my next oil painting. This mutualism between the different mediums is most welcome as it drives the development of my work in unexpected ways.
Debbie: From your use of colour to your bold mark making to your curious subjects, your work has a sense of play and joy to it which makes your paintings so wonderful to look at! Do you have any upcoming projects or is there anywhere online where our readers can see more of your work?
I will be attending the Boston Figure painting competition from July 30th – August 3rd, so if you’re around town come on by.
I will also be holding a weekend plein air painting workshop at the Florence Academy of Art in Sweden on the 1st and 2nd of September, you’ll find all the info on their website if you’re interested.