I spend a lot of time wandering around the urban fringe of the NY metropolitan area. When I find a site that resonates with me, I do a quick pen & ink sketch in a small notebook using a uni-ball pen. These are rough sketches that help me narrow my vision down and focus on what is essential to the scene.
When a site interests me enough to do a large painting I will first do an oil sketch of the scene. Since a large painting can take me up to three months to paint, I want to be sure I have worked out any compositional issues before I commit myself to the long process of doing a large painting on site. I don't want to spend months on a painting and then wish I had added a couple of inches to one side of the image because the painting would be so much better if I had. Working out my ideas ahead of time allows me to be fairly sure of the direction the painting will take.
For most of my studies, I work on 300 pound watercolor paper that I staple to a board and then apply a couple of coats of acrylic gesso to. This provides an archival ground for the oil paint. I then use masking tape to block out the shape I think the painting will take. I will use multiple strips of tape so that I can peel these away if I want to extend the composition in any directions. After the study is blocked in and worked on for a few days I usually have enough information to decide on the final dimensions for a large painting.
Typically I paint on site for 2-3 months to complete the larger version. Because of the changing light, I work on one painting in the morning and another one in the afternoon. I usually paint for about 3-4 hours at a stretch at each site. I try to paint most days that the weather permits including weekends. Sundays are my favorite day to paint outdoors. The urban places I frequent are much quieter on Sundays and there's tranquility to the city that is very appealing.
Although the majority of the painting is completed on site, I make a point of occasionally looking at the painting in the studio while I'm working on it. This allows me to adjust any values that might be off. The painting has to look as good indoors when it's finished as it does outdoors, so I find that adjusting values to indoor lighting is important. There is so much illumination outdoors, so there's a tendency to paint things too dark. I also like to do some adjustments indoors when a painting is almost completed. This might entail softening or sharpening up edges as well has adding bits of color in the transition area between the lights and shadows. When needed, I will use photos for things that don't stay still like cars.
Although my paintings are very detailed, in the end the painting must stand on its own regardless of the initial scene that inspired it. I am not beyond changing or moving things around if I feel it will make the painting better. My goal is not to copy everything exactly but instead to capture the essence of a particular place and time.
Day one of blocking the Tire Shop in the Bronx
I'm often asked why I paint on location instead of using photographs and painting in the studio. While I have nothing against working from photographs, that method of painting is very different from my goals as an artist. For me painting on location is a crucial part of my process. Spending weeks and more often months in the same local allows me to get to know a place in a way I never could if I worked from photos. While painting on location I find out a lot of information about the sites by talking to people who either work or reside there. I am a witness to the day to day workings of a particular place, which gives a richness of experience to the painting process and ultimately makes the final painting more interesting. All of my paintings have a story behind them, one that reveals itself to me after careful observation and immersion in a scene over an extended period of time.
Painting on location certainly has its challenges. Dealing with fierce winds, bugs, intense sun some days, chilly temps on other days and unwanted attention by some passers by are all part of the mix, but so is exploring new places, getting to know interesting people and finding out the history behind the ordinary façade of everyday life. All of which makes painting on site very rewarding and makes the process by which I paint as important as the final painting.
Another frequently asked question is what do I do in the winter. I paint in my car! I use the steering wheel as an easel and tape either a small canvas to it or lean a board with a piece of gessoed watercolor paper stapled to it against the wheel. I put my palette on the passenger seat along with the rest of my gear. Recently I started doing small studies in the car using watercolor and gouache. Clean up was a lot easier plus no paint fumes. I always keep the car window cracked open when I'm painting with oils in the car.
Winter is a great time to look for new subject matter. All the trees are bare so I can see things I would have missed in the summer when the trees are in full leaf. I do a lot of exploring this time of year. Winter is also a good time to finish up the studies I started earlier in the year for my large paintings. I rarely get to finish the studies when I start them because I'm in a hurry to get working on the big paintings while I have the nice weather. Once my main painting season is over sometime in early to mid December, I have more time to finish up the studies.