Juan Martinez plein air painting

An Interview with Juan Martinez

Submitted by Ben Rathbone on Friday, February 24, 2017 - 01:55 PM

What follows is an interview I conducted over the phone with Juan Carlos Martinez (http://www.juanmartinez.com/) on January 20, 2017. Juan and I both come from a background in realistic painting and the Atelier tradition of artistic training. I know Juan from studying under him when I attended, part time, the Academy of Realist Art, in Toronto from 2005 to 2007. Juan was an instructor at that time, and I learned a great deal from him while doing cast drawing, figure drawing, and color cast painting. We’ve also both started doing plein air painting more seriously over the last year. We discuss plein air painting, its relationship with to figure painting, learning to paint outdoors, Juan’s palette, and other topics. 

Ben: Thank you, Juan, for taking the time for this interview. To start, can you give us some quick background about your artistic career?

Juan: Well, I came to try to be a working artist fairly late in life. I always did drawing and painting since I was young and it was thus a part of my life from early on. “Life”, nevertheless, took me to school for law and I eventually became a practicing lawyer. When I moved to Toronto and found myself between jobs, I discovered the artist and teacher Michael John Angel through a friend. I enrolled in some workshops, and really took to the Atelier system of training with relish. I also found that I was improving rapidly. Before being exposed to this form of training I hadn’t realized that there were ways of improving one’s artistic ability to such a degree for achieving a high level of realism and detail. Like most people, I thought one was simply born with talent, and that that was it. You either had talent or you didn’t. Perhaps had I realized  there are practical methods of training -- such as what I was now learning -- I might have seen how you can train yourself to get better and better. So, anyway, from there I started digging deeper and deeper into the Atelier method and it took over my life. I’ve been at it ever since. 

So I’ve done the full range of academic course and training, working always from life or “reality”. Figures, still lives, etc. Since then, I’ve done commissioned portraits, figurative paintings, and still lives. Last year, I left The Academy in Toronto after teaching there for 11 years and moved West to start over. Although still treating with the previous subjects, I’m now applying my knowledge, skill, and interest to landscape painting, which at this point in my life seems better suited for my tastes. It’s a different kind of approach from academic style of painting, but there are still a lot of things, such as the structure of pictures and a general understanding of art, that are common to any style of painting...if it is to be good. 

Ben: How long have you been plein air painting?

Juan: I’d done it in the past, in fits and starts, here and there. I really started doing it seriously last year, when I moved to more remote area and got access to a truck. It’s actually really difficult to be a landscape painter not having a vehicle, particularly when living in an urban area . Without a car, you’re basically limited to where public transportation can take you. It’s just a fact of modern life that one needs, or, having a car is indispensable to getting out to places to paint. 

Ben: How has plein air painting informed your realism work, and vice versa? 

Juan: Well, what got me more interested in doing it, at least more seriously, was John Carlson’s book: Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting. I had also been watching Scott Christensen’s excellent videos on landscape painting and he seemed to be regularly mentioning Carlson, so I naturally wondered ‘Who is this Carlson guy?’ I looked him up, got the book, and started reading it. Pretty quickly I realized that the book has so much to do with painting in general, not just landscape painting, and it was simply right on. The subject Carlson deals with happens to be landscape, but he shows clearly how certain laws of good art are universal, and so we can also apply much of what we learned in the academy to this type of painting. 

While there is a lot in common, they are still different tasks. One of the things Christensen talks about is how, in landscape painting, one does not, for example, need to get the drawing exactly right, so to speak. Whereas in figure drawing, say portrait drawing, if the nose and eyes are not lined up properly, it will look very obviously wrong. On the other hand, no one will care, or know, if one tree is in a slightly different place in a landscape painting compared to real life. (Of course, it still is important that what you put down on the panel looks like a proper tree. He is not implying careless drawing.) Also, with figurative work, your subject is right in front of you and, typically, isolated. Yet, even with this relatively “simple” theme, there is a whole universe of things to do with figurative work: the anatomy, the personality, the flesh colors, etc. When painting outdoors, the problem is compounded through sheer vastness of potential subject is before you! We are invariably left to ask, “what the Hell am I going to paint?” There is so much to pick from and so much you *could* paint, that the problem becomes selecting and pinning down something you *do* want to paint. 

Ben: I agree. When doing figurative work, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the drawing, the anatomy, or the details and lose sight of the whole or the big impression. One can sometimes get away with an incomplete picture if one area is heavily rendered and looks really nice. With landscape and plein air painting, there is much more of an expectation on the viewer’s part for a whole scene. I like the analogy of plein air painting to sparring, as in practicing boxing. In sparring, you have to bring all the techniques together and get your idea or impression down very rapidly (compared to figure work.)

Juan: Yes, and when you are outdoors, especially if the sun is out, you have no more than 2 to 3 hours maximum to work. At certain times of the day, even less than that. (John Singer) Sargent only had 10 minutes of specific light for certain paintings and worked entirely outdoors for that painting (i.e., “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”). 

Ben: So what, in your mind, is the relation between plein air work done outdoors and landscape painting done in the studio? 

Juan: I think that if your goal, in the end, is to do complete landscape paintings, then I think plein air painting is a necessary part of good landscape painting. I think there is a similarity in this with making high quality figurative paintings and portraits: if you only ever work from photographs, that is; without ever working from life, then there are all kinds of things that you will miss, or perhaps never quite understand properly. This doesn’t make working from life easy, however, and the things you’ll miss are mostly nonverbal and need to be experienced. That is not to say people can’t make nice paintings from photos, but if they don’t ever work from life, they may never be able to do anything that is better than the photo itself. This leads to the whole circular argument of why even make the painting when you can just have the photograph? So I think working from life, in this case life outdoors, is exactly the training needed for good finished landscape paintings. By finished I mean completed, not necessarily high finish or rendering, but finished to whatever degree of finish you choose. 

I look at a lot of paintings done in the late 19th century and I know they are done in the studio, for example, but these would have been done from sketches and studies done outdoors, as well. The artists would visit a location multiple times and do multiple sketches and eventually come up with a painting in the studio. The great dioramas in natural history museums were done this way. Now I, myself, don’t want every painting I do or look at to be “merely” a sketch. So when you and I are out there working outdoors, catching that impression, we are really hoping to at least get a good sketch. If we do, then now we have a real reference. I might not like or keep every painting that I do outdoors, but if I still like the subject well enough or find an inspiration in it, even if the plein air painting is not particularly worth preserving, I might still work from it as reference for color and value, for example, and from photos, for other ideas and details, etc..

Ben: Who are your favorite landscape painting artists?

Juan: That’s a tough one because there are so many good ones right now. I keep “discovering” more every day, in fact. I’m always poring over people’s work on the internet -- a medium for which I am very thankful as an artist, by the way. These days I’m looking a lot at Marc Hanson. He is a guy who is not only a great plein air painter, but a really complete artist and capable of many subjects. Also Kami Mendlik who is the Minneapolis area. She is really good and I like her subjects which are more geographically Northern. Of course, Scott Christensen has definitely been an influence for me, and Jeremy Lipking who is just good at pretty much everything. His landscapes are particularly great. Also Clyde Aspevig a superb Montana painter whose work I look at regularly. His is another State close to where I’m from so the territory he depicts really speaks to me, as well.  

Ben: Ok, let’s now talk about some technical things. What are your favorite colors or color palette to use?

Juan: It’s a little bit fluid, but it is basically the palette I use for figurative work with a couple of additions and a couple of subtractions. So, to go through the list of colors on my palette: 

Juan Martinez's palette of oil paints for plein air painting


White and Black
I’ve got white and I’ve got black. Usually Titanium White and almost any black. A lot of outdoor painters don’t use black, it seems, but I use black as a warm blue, so to speak. I don’t paint with it directly, but rather use it as a mixer for greens, for example. One rarely paints with a paint directly from the tube anyway; without mixing it with something. Black makes for some great natural greens when mixed with yellows. If you mixed a green with Ultramarine Blue and a yellow, and you mixed the same yellow with a black, you’ll get two different and agreeable greens. So, I use it as a blue. 

I use two yellows. I use a very light, bright color like a Cadmium Lemon, and then a Yellow Ochre, as well. For the latter I prefer a synthetic yellow iron oxide pigment, such as Winsor & Newton’s Yellow Ochre Pale, Williamsburg Mars Yellow Light, or Michael Harding Yellow Ochre. I prefer these because they are a little stronger tinting than the natural yellow ochres, and thus give you a bit more range when you mix them. There is nothing wrong with the natural yellow ochres, but in tinting other, stronger paints -- such as black -- you just need so much of it (the natural yellow ochre) to make any kind of impact. So, I look for PY42 (CI pigment name). If it’s PY42, it’s synthetic. If it’s PY43 it’s natural, no matter what it might be called on the tube.

Then I go into the reds. I use usually two reds, a warmer and a cooler. For the brighter or warmer one, I’ve recently started using a Rembrandt Permanent Red Medium. It’s not expensive as compared to Cadmium Red, it’s strong tinting, and it’s very bright. In truth it is cooler than a Cadmium Red, but because it’s way less expensive and you can use a lot of it in mixtures, not that you’re necessarily painting red things, but you’re adding it a lot of mixtures to make them warmer. Cadmium Red would work probably better, but again, it is so much more expensive than many paints, even more than a typical cadmium yellow, so this makes the Rembrandt Paint (PR 254-- Pyrrol Red) an excellent option. Since it’s almost never used out of the tube, the fact that it isn’t as opaque as cad red, but is a good mixing paint goes a long way in rounding out your palette. For the true cool red, I’ll use a permanent alizarin. 

After the reds, I use two earth tones (also in the red family). I typically use a Burnt Sienna, which is my favorite “middle earth” tone. I use it in all figural painting, in fact. Burnt Siennas come in different values, and I do like to use the lighter ones. Some of them become as dark as a Burnt Umber so there is not enough of a value gap separating the two “dark oranges”. As you might have guessed in my saying that, my second earth tone paint is Burnt Umber. So I have the lighter, more orange, Burnt Sienna, and the darker, greyer Burnt Umber. 

Just Ultramarine Blue and black.

Juan Martinez's palette of oil paints for plein air painting

Ben: so just Ultramarine Blue? No other blues? 

Juan: Yes, just Ultramarine. However, two things I might add to this list if I were painting in a very different environment are Viridian Green, for one. That is to say, if I were going to a place where there were a lot of greens in the environment, or during a very green time of the year, the Viridian would give me enough extra options to mix a wider range of greens. Frankly, for many landscape subjects, Viridian Green probably ought to be on the palette to act as the Fourth Primary.

The other paint I might add would be a Cobalt Blue if I felt it was called for. 

I should say I add three or four, pre-mixed, light grey colors. (These are not really pre-mixed, but they could be. (see below)

The overall palette logic is the same kind of logic that you would use in any kind of painting, though. That is, the logic of warm and cool and of value. I have the warms: the yellows and the reds, and the cools; the blue and black. My strongest yellow is very light. My strongest red is a light value, at least for a red. And my strongest blue is very dark. Thus, the primaries are as far apart from one another in value as possible. If you think of a triangle of primary colors on a color wheel, the farther apart they are in value, the broader the range of colors you can mix between them. However, a lot of the time what we need outdoors is a grey or neutral version of these colors. We don’t need a lot of chroma colors other than as starting points or as flourishes, perhaps. 

I saw that Scott Christensen would premix grey versions of his yellows, reds, and blues. That made sense, since I saw how much he was able to use them, so I tried this, too. Mixing up the colors into a set of greyed down versions takes a bit of time, so what I did was I bought a Buff Titanium, which is a single pigment, and unbleached, and it acts as a light grey-yellow. I also use Rembrandt Naples Yellow Red -- I know, a strange name -- which is my light “grey-red”. Then, I get a light blue-grey, which most companies make from a mixture of other pigments. The names vary. Finally, I get a (Munsell) value 5 or 6 neutral grey and I put those all on the side of the palette. So I’ve got a light 6 or 7 in the yellow, and 6 or 7 in the blue and the red and a 6 or 7 in the grey. This makes for very easy mixing. You don’t need these colors, but I find it’s much faster to work if you have them on the palette. Otherwise, I’d need to mix similar things on-the-fly anyway, but always starting from the much higher chroma colors. These grey paints just saves a little precious time. 

Ben: This makes a lot of sense. I find myself struggling to knock down my chromas to create depth and distance. 

Juan: Once you do it and control your chroma, your high chroma colors will that much more impact. The problem is that when you get out into nature, all the colors you look at can appear strongly chromatic, so it’s certainly tempting to use the high chroma paints directly. What we have to figure out is a way to edit that and get to the essence of the color without using too much of the high chroma paints, so that when you do put some high chroma color in there, it really pops out. 

Ben: Tell me about your kit and what you like to take with you to paint outdoors. 

Juan: I have two kits, the first is the classic French easel

Ben: Just as an aside, I completely hate French Easels. I had one for years, and grew to truly loathe it. But that is a personal opinion. 

Juan: <laughs> It’s so true. Every person I know who is an outdoor painter, or who’s been doing it for years, *all* have one. Everybody hates them, but they all continue to use them. 

Ben: Jeez..not me. I stopped using mine and I’ll never go back.

Juan: Well there are ways of customizing them and making them better. My friend Dwayne Harty has the same one he’s owned for 30 years. (I should add him to the list of my artistic influences, too. He’s a lifelong friend and has been a professional wildlife painter for decades. His plein air work is superb and inspirational.) At any rate, I saw his old French easel last year and said ‘that looks like it’s still perfect.’ He said that it was. So the difference between the ones today and the ones from 30 years ago is marked. When he bought it, he said the first thing he did was take it apart and varnish it. That was a really good idea that I may yet do with mine. But still, the hardware on that older model had, for example, much larger knobs and sturdier hinges, so it’s way easier to turn and to keep things tight. French easels are a lot like what Winston Churchill purportedly said about democracy: ”It’s the worst system imaginable, but it’s the best one we’ve got…”

Ben: <joking> No! This is unacceptable. This is literally 19th century technology. 

Juan: It is. Steam punk, baby! Well there are new versions today with telescoping legs and all. (One such is Soltek). Actually, I don’t use my French easel all that much although I bought backpack straps for it -- for like $15 at Jerry’s Art-o-Rama --  and they make it way easier to carry the unit, for sure! Still, I now use it mainly in the studio where it is set up semi-permanently. 

My main outdoor kit is a pochade box and tripod. I use a Guerrilla Painter box on a sturdy Manfrotto tripod. It’s not as sturdy as the French easel can be, especially in terms of the size of picture that you could put on it, but it’s pretty darn good, and I’ve also done some hacking to make it better. Mine is the French Resistance medium pochade box. It works great and keeps all my stuff from getting messy. I also bring with me all the typical stuff you need, minus the things I forget. I do like to take out a bag or something to hold some rocks for weight, because the pochade box on the tripod can act rather as a sail to catch a wind gust and tip. I always take my camera and binoculars, too.

For brushes I use mostly bristles, flats or brights, and possibly, filberts. Palette/painting knives are invaluable for painting. I also use Liquin as my medium. I have mineral spirits to clean things up, but I mix everything with Liquin which makes it all dry well. 

For surfaces, I am painting exclusively on panels, both store-bought and those which I have made. Right now I am very impressed with using aluminum composite panel (Dibond is the original brand). I have a few tweaks, hacks, and minor preps that have to be done to them before they are paintable, though. Primarily, they must be sanding and scuffed -- not down to the bare aluminum -- before applying acrylic gesso or oil paint. But, after that, they seem to be extremely open to paint application and, as you know, they are light, rigid, and durable. I'll show one of my fancy ones when I get a good photo of it (soon).

Ben: What are you favorite locations and types of places to paint outdoors? 

Juan: I don’t have a favorite. Around here I look around for things that interest me. They could be a farmer’s field or just a stream or a country road. Some are more man-made, and others more natural, but what you look for are those same concepts of Art, no matter the subject is that you’re faced with. That is to say, I don’t look for preconceived “things” or “scenes”, although that is inevitably in your mind from time to time and at differing degrees. What I look for more is a mood or feeling that strikes me with the light, in that moment, no matter the subject per se. Or, perhaps it’s the abstract shapes and values that are in front of me (the light usually dictates much of that stuff, too). One hopes that there are areas you can visit regularly that are constantly inspiring, every time you go there. As we talked about before, I was not inspired by modern landscapes; by urban scenes of modern cities. But then again there is no single nor ideal non-urban landscape, either, that I would choose above all others. If I was in the mountains I would be painting mountains. (I guess to be honest, I do love the Prairies perhaps most of all, but that is because I grew up there. I am definitely biased.)

Maybe the thing about landscape painting is that what has always inspired you in art, is what you will eventually do or feel compelled to do. One of the things I was told years ago, by Paul Delorenzo, a student of (R.H Ives) Gammell was that when you finish good training and start to develop skills, you more or less end up painting the pictures you’ve always wanted to paint even from, say, when you were 17 years old. You’re just going to be able to actually do them now. And a lot of that is true. Although many of the paintings I wanted to do when I was 17 today I think are too immature and I don’t want to do them, that is not true for all of them. The same thing can apply with the landscapes. I grew up in the West and in the prairies and I’ve always loved that landscape. So I’m inspired and fulfilled by trying to capture this landscape, versus being in the city for the last 25 years. So this is a common thing in good landscape art; painting what moves you. I think people will paint what they always wanted to paint. 

Nature, by itself, can be very inspirational to people so I can imagine going to a place, like where you are (San Diego) and being so close to so many types of vistas and views and landscapes, and that could be inspiration for nearly anyone. The Prairies might not be for everyone, but maybe they could be. Just not in the middle of winter (laughs). 

Ben: What role does plein air painting play in making a person a better artist?

Juan: One thing I would definitely recommend, but that is not to say that everyone should do it, is if you were interested in doing landscapes as a subject, then you really should do plein air painting as well. But if it doesn’t interest you at all, then I don’t think it would make your painting better. If someone was to take it up and explore landscape or plein air painting, one way to get better at it is simply to understand that it’s like anything else: It takes practice, and focused, specific practice at that. And, using resources such as Carlson’s book is invaluable. 

One of the traps or pitfalls, I’ve found so far, and I’m sure there are many like it in any kind of art, is that people’s biggest obstacle can be their own psychology. For instance, they might be really good at other kinds of art, and they think that everything they do has to be really good. And if it’s not, they are very disappointed. When we’re plein air painting, we have to manage our expectations and accept that not every piece of painting is going to be a masterpiece. But that’s not to say that every piece will still not be really useful. So understanding this should make it easier to get out there and just try some stuff and go “oh man, that was a disaster.” But maybe you’ll come back and do something more satisfying the next time. You’ve got to relax. But that is typical advice for any kind of art that you’re trying to learn or get better at. 

Ben: Yes, I’ve noticed that there is a big difference between trying to get out there and paint outdoors and trying out lots of tips and tricks, versus having a real framework and conceptual approach to how you go about the painting, even for plein air paintings under two hours.  

Juan: Yes, and I would add that one of the things I observed when I was really studying other plein air painters was that these guys did not re-invent the wheel. I’d hear Scott Christensen or Rick Howell always quoting Carlson or Edgar Payne. What was interesting about both of the contemporary artists is they would explain a thing they learned from Carlson or Payne, and then you would see them doing the exact same thing on their own paintings. They didn’t take those concepts and re-interpret them somehow, they just went and did it, with the idea that “this is what I learned and I’m doing it, and it works every time.” I think there is nothing wrong with that nor with using ideas and approaches that have worked for other people. Sound practice is sound practice.

Someone once said that all of the great still-life arrangements have already been done, and we just keep doing variations of the same themes. Or the great stories in literature are all there, and good writers tell them over and over, but in unique variations. It’s just as true with outdoor painting. You look at Payne’s book, and his list of the few archetypal compositions. Show me where in the world is a great painting that isn’t one of those archetypes. You don’t get tired of them. They might have different subjects and colors, but they are basically the same compositional schemes, and they work every time. So that is another take-away for people, look at these elements and concepts; those found in good resource books such as Carlson’s or Payne’s. Then, if you can use these concepts and themes in your own painting, you’ll probably end up with something you’re happy with. 

Ben: Thanks again Juan for taking the time to chat. To readers, be sure to check out Juan’s amazing work at http://www.juanmartinez.com.


See the locations Juan has painted.


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