Joseph grew up working with his father, James McGurl, who is a muralist and his son’s most influential teacher. Joseph graduated from Massachusetts College of Art and also studied in England and Italy. After college, he worked for a period of time as a yacht captain, sailing the East Coast from Maine to the Caribbean while continuing to observe and interpret in paint the natural world. In search of more solid training in drawing, he sought out Robert Cormier, a devotee of French Academy methods, and for two years studied sight-size figure drawing under him. Joseph synthesizes academic figure drawing skills with sight-size landscape painting, resulting in a new and unique approach to addressing the landscape. Today Joseph has been designated a Living Master by the Art Renewal Center, is a Signature Member of the Plein Air Painters of America, and has won significant awards for his artwork.
Art Notes: Why is working plein air important to you as an artist?
Plein air painting gives me a direct and intimate connection to my subject. I am responding to not only what I
see, but what I feel. If the mountain feels grander than it looks, I consciously or subconsciously make it so. Also, the magic of representational art has always been the process of taking the multi-dimensional world and recreating it in two dimensions in a way that gives the impression of multi-dimensions. If you work from a photograph, the camera has already done that, so you are painting two dimensions from two dimensions — there is no “magic.”
Most importantly for me is that by visually dissecting the landscape and then putting it back together with paint and canvas, I become intimately knowledgeable about the elements I am painting. Then, when painting from my imagination, I have this storehouse of knowledge to pull from to give my paintings believability.
Art Notes: What does a scene need to have for you to want to paint it?
I need a scene to have something interesting in it for me to want to paint it. It may be a color, atmospheric effect, something topographically unique, or it may simply provide me with an emotional response that I can’t quite identify. I don’t worry too much about composition because I can adjust that in the field or back at the studio. I also usually am not inspired by active, overly dramatic scenes. Some artists do a wonderful job of painting dramatic subjects. However, for me, plein air painting is more meditative and contemplative, and I often am inspired by a place where there is a sense of stillness.
Art Notes: Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
The first thing I usually do is find the composition using my sight-size viewfinder. The viewfinder is a frame the same size as my panel that I look through to aid in the composing and drawing of my subject. There is information about it on my website viewfinder page. When I have chosen my subject, I attach the viewfinder to the edge of my panel and draw exactly what I see through the viewfinder onto my panel at the exact same proportions.
Once I have the scene drawn on my panel with acrylic paint, I paint a black and white value underpainting. This helps lock in my composition, and if I want to make changes at this stage, it is easy as the acrylic dries quickly. The next step is to paint the main color passages with oils in a loose and general manner. I use “underpainting white” from Winsor & Newton; it is a very fast-drying white that sets up quickly so my panel doesn’t become slick with wet, juicy paint that I can’t paint over.
At this stage, I work from large shapes to small and background to foreground. The last step is to add details. By now, with the underpainting white mixed into most of my colors in varying degrees, the paint is stiff enough to paint on top of without disturbing the underlying paint surface.
Art Notes: How important is planning for you and your process? Why?
Planning is critical for my process because outdoors, the light is constantly changing, so I have to paint quickly and
efficiently. Any changes are time wasted, and as the light, atmosphere, tide, etc., change, I will not be able to paint a
cohesive image of the scene before me. Additionally, if the process takes too long, the feature that appealed to me
initially may also have changed and the subject is no longer of interest.
Art Notes: When trying to get realistic light, what questions do you ask yourself about the colors and values you’re seeing in front of you?
The first thing I do is visualize the values I will be using. Because white paint by itself doesn’t look like light, the illusion of light can only be created by adjusting the surrounding values. They will usually have to be painted darker than you think so there is enough range to make the light or lighted parts of the painting have the illusion of “light.” As I am painting, I am continually thinking of what the light is doing in the scene and how to recreate that with paint.
We also have an inherent limited value range because when painting outside, we don’t have paint as bright as the sun or as dark as a deep shadow. For this reason, I almost always have values that range from extremely dark to very light.
Although not as critical as value, color is also important. Every light source has a “temperature.” It could be cool, as when painting on a cloudy day, or it could be warm, as when painting in the early morning light. Being aware of this will result in the painting having a certain color key and will create color harmony.
In order to provide vibrancy in the coloring, I also try to juxtapose opposing colors. For instance, if I were painting green foliage, I would add some purple in small amounts to the shadow areas. By placing these opposite colors near each other, they each will appear stronger without having to paint them overly vibrant, which would result in garish colors.
Art Notes: How do you think through the composition of your piece?
I generally try to make big shapes. From across the room, a painting with big shapes will stand out. I also try to lead the viewer’s eye through the painting in a meandering path. This may be accomplished by the placement of objects, the pattern of the masses, or the edges of shapes. This keeps the viewer’s eye activated and interested in looking throughout the entire painting.
Art Notes: Plein air painting can feel intimidating to a painter of any skill level. Any advice to a beginner?
I think the best advice for a beginner is to start simply. The amount of information confronting them in an outdoor setting can be overwhelming. They could start by just painting the color of the sky. Next, the ocean, a simple field, or a mountain could be added. Just focus on those two elements and get them as exact as possible. Gradually add more elements and sophistication.
The beginner could also start with just a value painting. When comfortable with painting values, color can be added. All the while keeping their compositions and subjects simple. A beginning plein air painter could also draw outside. Again, they should start with a simple subject, and as they become more accomplished, add more complexity. A painting is a combination of color, value, and drawing. By separating these elements, the beginner can focus on each one until they are mastered and then combine them all into a full-color and -value outdoor painting.