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A brush with sunset

Pinterest partiers paint with Westcot
Area artist Lianne Westcot adds some leaves to a branch while demonstrating plein air (outdoor) painting at the Solon Public Library’s Pinterest Party Sept. 18. (photos by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– The sun trailed slowly into the west, illuminating a tall tree.
And there was Lianne Westcot’s subject.
Westcot, a local artist, had her easel and paints set up in front of the large windows in the Solon Public Library’s reading area. A group of women were gathered around her Sept. 18 as part of the library’s latest Pinterest Party– a crash course on plein air (outdoor) painting.
Westcot is a member of the Iowa Plein Air Painters, a group of four-to-eight regular Solonites who paint every Sunday at a variety of outdoor locations, announced each week on the group’s Facebook page.
“I started a few years ago when I decided that it was good exercise,” Westcot said. “I would be outdoors and seeing everything up close and personal.”
She’s been painting outdoors quite a bit since, she told the group.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a highly social, fun thing.”
Westcot appeared at the invitation of Library Director Kris Brown, whose daughter and sister have both taken up the hobby.
Westcot demonstrated her technique for about an hour and then adjourned with the Pinterest partiers to the meeting room where participants selected a still life and applied what they had learned.
“With plein air, things change,” she explained. “You step outside and it’s like, oh my gosh, gorgeous sunrise, and then yourself get set up and you look up and it’s like, OK, it’s all changed.”
You don’t want to be chasing the light, she said, trying to change the painting as the scene shifts. You have to plan accordingly.
Some artists will do a quick watercolor sketch or take a photo they can refer to later, she noted.
With the days getting shorter, Westcot would have normally started earlier in the day to avoid a dramatic difference in the light.
She also would have taken longer to paint, and would have been using a much smaller canvas.
She also would have been outdoors.
But for practical reasons, the lesson was taught inside with a larger canvas so everyone could see, and Westcot had a condensed time to paint.
Her canvas was already toned, covered in a blend of colors that served as a background, in this case, yellow, burnt sienna and a little white.
“People ask what color do I tone,” she said. “Using a little bit sunnier colors helps me.”
Blue can absorb a lot of light, and starting with too much can make it harder to bring the painting back to life, she observed.
“I like to find something that makes me excited to paint,” she said. “If I try to think about what somebody else might like, that is not as much fun to paint.”
She displayed a few of her composing tools– a viewfinder with a grid and a red filter to look at a prospective subject as only light and dark– and explained her process for beginning.
After picking a tree in the near distance with the sun dipping down behind it, Westcot started with establishing the horizon of her landscape.
You don’t want everything to be symmetrical, smooth and boring, she explained. As she discussed her approach, she began filling in the canvas and fielding questions.
She started with the horizon, purposely uneven, then filled in with a little white to help block the fading light.
Westcot always begins her palette of colors with several healthy globs of white– some to be white and some to mix with colors.
“If you don’t like something, they make something called Titanium White,” she said. “It’s like your eraser.”
With acrylic paints, the Titanium White can cover a mistake and once dry, can be colored over without bleeding through, she added.
She stepped back from the canvas to check her work often, trying to convince herself of the illusion of three dimensions.
“Because if I can’t see it, it’s a little frustrating,” she said.
Smaller crabapple trees appeared in the foreground and the sun took its place in among the clouds as Westcot worked around the canvas to block in the scene.
A shimmering glow was added at the horizon and then the trunk of the tree and some branches took shape.
“I don’t necessarily make the entire tree at one time, I leave myself some room to branch out,” she quipped.
Westcot attacked the sky with the edge of her brush, mixing colors to add variation, leaving spaces for the light to filter through the tree.
“Does anyone see a tree forming here?’ she asked, stepping back, to laughter.
As she layered on the paint, she explained to the group the importance of perspective in helping convince the eye of the depth of a painting.
“Things closer to you are bigger and things farther away from you are smaller,” she noted.
A bush in front of a tree adds to the illusion of depth, and making things in the distance dustier, lighter, with less detail also adds needed perspective, she added.
Brush strokes can be important as well, she added, some more dramatic, some less.
Eventually, more branches grew out from the tree and leaves sprouted before Westcot finished with the grass in the foreground.
It wasn’t how she would normally work, standing off to the side so people could see the process, not being extremely careful because of time constraints and not allowing the background to dry completely before moving on.
“What do you think?” Westcot asked.
“I think it looks great,” Brown said from the audience.
Because acrylic paintings are more dependent on layers, Westcot said she doesn’t normally do a lot of sunsets or sunrises.
“I use a lot of layers to get the sky the way I want it,” she explained.
Most of the members of the Iowa Plein Air Painters will finish a painting outside, she said, a process of several hours.
While she doesn’t paint in the cold weather because of her preferred acrylic medium, some of the group’s oil painters will brave the elements, taking carpets for warmth and comfort.
With the quick painting wrapped up, Westcot asked for final questions before dismissing her novice students to the meeting room
“No?” she asked. “Gosh, you guys learn fast.”