How I find inspiration, and on working en plein air.

I live in a BIG dramatic landscape that includes the Kleinrivier (Little River), Kleinriviersberg (Little River Mountain) and Akkedisberg (Lizard Mountain), abundant Fynbos flora, the leafy historic village of Stanford, many farms (some with forests), a coastline, a lagoon, wetlands and a few precious Milkwood forests. I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to inspiration. All of this is within a 15 minute drive.

Choosing my subjects

I find my subjects on walks around the village and along the Wandelpad, or on visits to the numerous farm restaurants and wine estates around Stanford. Drives to nearby Hermanus also spark ideas on this spectacular stretch of road.

While I’m out and about, I make notes if I see something that looks interesting to me. An interesting light effect. I take a few photographs with my phone, and make a note of the time of day and weather conditions. Sometimes these notes inspire a plein air painting, or another visit for photographs and sketches.

When I go out specifically to scout enticing spots to paint, the best times are early or late in the day when the shadows are long and the light dramatic on the Klein River and on the mountains.

Painting En Plein Air

I like to work en plein air as much as possible, to immerse myself in the experience of the landscape while painting it.

The practical challenges of painting en plein air: the time constraints, weather and working in public, conspire to inject energy into my expressions, causing me to work quickly to capture the fleeting light.

If you are interested in places to paint en plein air near Stanford, click here for a list of beautiful options that are open to the public.

My approach to choosing a composition and preparing to paint

Whether I am working en plein air, or at home in my studio, I make sure to take a photograph or two of my chosen view. Even though I most often paint from life, I like to have a reference in case I am unable to finish the painting in the one session. The photos also help me try out different crops of the view and help me establish my parameters for starting off my value sketch.

Baardskeerdersbos, April 2023
Waterfall Farm, Stanford, March 2023
Blue Moon Farm, Stanford, December 2022

Once I’ve chosen my composition, I usually do a three-value pencil sketch to map it all out. I take about 15-20 minutes to plan the painting out carefully, figure out which of the shapes fit where, and fill in the mid and dark values.

View from Zesty Lemon Restaurant
Sketchbook value study, Zesty Lemon, Stanford, August 2022
Colour study for oil original painting
Value sketch and colour study for Across the River, May 2022
Tracy Algar sketchbook value sketch of Klein Rivier with riverboats, Stanford.
Sketchbook value study, Kleinrivier, Stanford, February 2022

Some notes on how I use photographs as reference

  • I always take reference photographs, but I prefer to paint from life.
  • If you copy the exact values and colours from a photograph the painting tends to have the flatness of a photograph. When you paint from life you can perceive more depth making it an easier illusion to create.
  • I find a photograph useful in my initial stages of choosing a subject, as I can easily crop photographs to test compositions before I sketch them out.
  • As far as using photographs as reference for a studio painting, as long as you remember to allow for atmospheric perspective and adjust your values and colours accordingly, they can be very useful indeed.