On Location with Stasinos and Albala: Same Subject, Different Visions

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Mitchell Albala (left), Michael Stasinos (right)

It never ceases to amaze me how unique each painter’s vision can be — in everything from the subjects they choose to the color choices they make or the type of painterly handwriting they use. There is perhaps no better way to see this in action than when two painters work side by side, painting the same subject.

Michael Stasinos and I had an opportunity to do this in mid August. We set out to paint the view of my neighborhood in Ballard, Seattle. From our elevated position, we could see the setting sun light up the streets, turning the gray asphalt into orange and yellow stripes that made colorful patterns of light and dark. How would we each tackle this difficult visual problem?

Michael is an extraordinarily talented landscape (and figurative) painter. In many ways, our approach to landscape couldn’t be more different. We are both representational, but he tries to get to the soul of a subject through highly focused detail; I try to reach the soul through abstract shapes and a diffuse light that renders forms with considerably less detail.

Photograph of actual scene

We both selected the exact same view, even choosing a vertical format. This gave us more sky to play with — an important decision since the sky is the light source and integral to the drama of the subject. He began with a warm cadmium orange undertone, which he said was unusual for him. He usually starts with an undertone of Paynes gray. I began with a blue undertone with the intention of placing my warms — the light-struck streets and rooftops — over the blue underpainting.

For a moment, I imagined us like Monet and Renoir painting “La Grenouillère” together in 1869. (Well, maybe that’s overstating it.) But I did wonder what they might have talked about. Did they paint in silence or did Monet lean over to Renoir from time to time and say, “Pierre, are you really going to use that yellow?” Did Renoir mumble under his breath, “I really suck at this this. Monet … he really knows what he’s doing.” Michael and I exchanged friendly advice from time to time and thought out loud about our own patterns and habits. Were we approaching the problem the way we always did or trying something different?

The result of our efforts: my painting at left, Michael’s at right.

After an hour-and-a-half, it was obvious that we were both interested in the patterns made by the streets. However, there was a clear difference in the way we went about capturing the effects of the light and glare. Michael (right) used considerably stronger value contrasts than I did. He used many small touches of saturated color, but there were also many dark, neutral color areas. The values in my piece (left) are much lighter overall and have a narrower range. My colors and shapes are also grouped into tighter color groups, which is one way I try to emphasize a unified light and atmosphere.

It is also worth noting that neither of us are trying to record the precise colors we see. That’s really not possible. Instead, we manipulate color and value in different ways to create a metaphor for the actual light. What is remarkable is that our divergent conclusions both express an effective impression of the visual experience. If we’ve done our homework well, our color solutions will capture something the photograph (see above) never could.


Additional Resources

Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
“Real Light vs painter’s Light and the Limitations of Paint” – page 104
“How Value Affects Color Identity” – pages 114 –119

Michael Stasinos’ website

“The Approach” – Five Essential Steps to Plein Air Painting

Matt Smith on the Synergy Between Plein Air and Studio Painting

Composition Before Color — Considerations in the First Phases of Plein Air Painting

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with over 34,000 copies in print, it is regarded as the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art, Pacific Northwest Art School, artEAST, Winslow Art Center, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. He is represented by Lisa Harris Gallery in Seattle.

7 Comments

  1. Janeen Schissler on

    Mitch, I really like how your rendition of the scene (the pattern of the city streets, etc.) began in the bottom third of your canvas; it really made it comfortable to look at. I liked Michael’s color patterns (beautiful harmony of colors.) …

  2. Very cool to see the unique quality of the two paintings. I picked up your lanscape book Mitch, excited to read and practice.

  3. Mitchell Albala on

    I asked Michael and this is what he had to say: “To claim an intentional effect would be overstating my mastery. However, I believe my initial orange-toned underpainting may have contributed to the result. Although most of the orange was wiped out of the sky area, I assume that the residue of orange (the compliment color to the blue) and the addition of alkyd painting medium to my paints, both contributed to the effect. Most successful paintings will show the artist’s strategy, but many mixing decisions are made as a quick response to the event in front of you. I often surprise myself with the effects I achieve, which is why I find painting on location so enjoyable.”

  4. Deborah Luger on

    Mitch — I am not an artist … but I do have a fascination with both the creative process and French art. One of the perks of growing up in NYC with some of the best museums of the world as my childhood getaways. I really appreciated the detail of you and Stasinos side by side in Ballard. I also got a sweet little chuckle from your imagined conversation and companionship of Monet and Renoir in 1869 painting side by side. Thanks for the share!

  5. For Mitch: I believe I can hear you talking to Rothko, “What do you think Marc? How about adding a little atmospheric color detail to the upper 2/3 and incorporating design into the lower 1/3 to augment my unique vision?” This is a beautiful and provocative painting for me.

    For Michael: I love the atmospheric and luminous qualities in your painting. It does remind us of some of Diebenkorn’s best work. Whereas he captured the atmosphere of (where?) in California, you have certainly claimed it in Seattle.

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