With the Fresh Coast Plein Air Festival coming up at the end of June, I’ve been thinking about plein air painting. In particular, I’ve been pondering the difficulties and challenges that naturally occur, as well as the rewards of painting in nature.
I hope that by the time you get to the end of this article, you have a new appreciation for plein air paintings, and the artists who produce them.
“En plein air” is the proper term referring to “painting outside”. The term goes back to the French impressionist period, although the practice goes back much further. Artists have long made sketches and studies in nature, then refined those loose paintings into polished studio works.
According to the book Monet by Frank Milner, Claude Monet “insisted that all of the picture should be painted from start to finish with the subject before him.” This included landscapes. Since light is fleeting, the painting had to be worked quickly and with loose, expressive strokes. Each paint mark had to mean something.
Around this time, the French easel, or paint box, was introduced. This enabled an artist to have a compact, mobile studio. The French easel has folding and telescoping legs, a small drawer for paints and tools, and of course an adjustable easel. The whole thing folds up to the size of a small suitcase, complete with a handle and a shoulder strap.
As compact and handy as it is, a French easel can still be heavy and cumbersome, especially if you’re going on a long hike to a painting locale.
Once set up, the French easel allows the artist to paint comfortably whether he wishes to stand or sit. The canvas is securely clamped and the whole thing is pretty sturdy. When the painting session is finished, the easel can be folded up, keeping the wet painting safely clamped for the journey back to the studio.
Once the artist is set up at the chosen location, he is faced with a busy and overwhelming scene before him. There is the task of translating a huge world into a small painting. One must decide what to keep, and what to omit. We simply can’t paint everything.
There are a million tree branches, leaves, twigs, stones, and blades of grass. The scene must be simplified, or the resulting painting will be busy, hectic and quite possibly an incohesive mess. In addition, it will be impossible to complete in a single session.
The artist has to fit the elements of the scene into the boundaries of the canvas. A lighthouse in the east may not fit with the cliff to the west. Many artists use “view finders”, small, open frames that can be used to visually compose the scene.
Perhaps a distant hill will need to be more blue or gray than it appears in life, in order to give the painting the depth of the scene before you. A tree may need to be omitted because it blocks the flow of the composition.
So you must be wondering, what is the point of plein air painting if the artist has to adjust the scene? For me, it’s observing the colors, and learning how the light and atmosphere interact. Painting outside creates an intimacy with the landscape. These observations cannot be adequately made or expressed through a photo. A good plein air artist will be able to present a well painted and well composed piece with a natural feel.
As with any outdoor activity, whether you’re planning a family cook-out, or just taking a walk, you must always consider the weather when planning a plein air outing.
I’ve had paintings topple over in sudden gusts of wind. I’ve been hot, I’ve been cold. I’ve been rained on, though light rain doesn’t affect an oil painting much. Once I sat on the rocks near a rough Lake Superior, painting the waves while the spray soaked me.
A watercolorist friend of mine painted a church en plein air. Then it rained on him. The result was a neat abstraction; a partnership between the artist and the elements.
Bugs love my work. They love to fly into it. Sometimes I can pick them out and send them on their way, their legs a bit more colorful. Often, they are coated with paint and can’t fly. Sometimes, I can’t pick them out, and they become part of the painting.
Of course, sometimes the bugs bother me, too. I try to dress for it. I don’t like to use bug spray, so I wear long pants, and a light long sleeved shirt. They still like to swarm my face and get in my ears and hair.
I’ve found that eating a good diet and avoiding sweets seems to keep the bugs away. I try not to make myself very tasty.
It’s neat to see an artist at work outside! I enjoy this part. I like when people stop and watch. I can interact with these folks, and perhaps sell to them. It’s a great way to promote my art!
I didn’t like dealing with passers-by when I first started plein air painting. I wasn’t confident in my work. I struggled with the beginning stages, and would ask people to come back later, when the painting would hopefully look better.
At first, I chose out of the way places where nobody would bother me. Then I started going to quiet parks, or popular trails. Then to busier places.
People stop, and watch. I greet them, letting them know they’re welcome to stick around. We talk. They ask questions. They move on. People don’t bother me.
I know other artists who just want to paint, and not be bothered. I saw two painters in Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains. One painter was super friendly and chatty. The other was in her zone, and not the friendliest. I understood, and I left her alone.
The day can move fast, especially when you’re spending a couple of hours trying to capture a fleeting moment. Light changes quickly. If the artist doesn’t work fast enough, one part of the painting will depict the morning, and another part will depict the afternoon.
Atmospheric conditions can change too. Clouds clear up. Fog rolls in. Fog rolls out. So many times the sky will change, showing you better light than you had when you started. Or it will cloud over, removing light from a spot you were just working on.
I painted the piece at left en plein air in 2017. When I started, it was cloudy. As I worked, the clouds broke open and the sun blazed out. It left sparkles in the water and highlights on the rocks. I had to work fast to get those new illuminations into the painting!
I usually block-in the scene in dark paint, paying attention to the placement of elements and their relationships. I then start building the lights. I might save the sky for last, depending on the cloud formations and conditions.
In this painting, I was focused on capturing the rippled reflections in the water and the deep greens within.
My hope is that you, the art observer, the art lover, and the art collector, will have a greater appreciation for the art of plein air. The paintings are often small, loose, rough little expressions of raw experience. A plein air artist is dedicated to his or her craft of painting realistic, authentic, and expressive landscape paintings.