It’s one of those open-air workshops on a crisp spring day. The fields and wood-groves are studded with painters, right down to the water’s edge. Here and there, respecting each other’s space — men with big hats and French easels; women, in pairs, hunched down in the grass. Some are very much alone and aloof. A woman gives me a frown as I approach.
“I don’t need to learn anything from you today, Mr. Genn,” she says, over her shoulder. She’s cut herself some privacy under a blossoming cherry. There’s a stream below and a rusted hay-rake obstructing the bay and the distant islands. An ant-hill seems too close for comfort. “I more or less just want to be left alone,” she tells me.
At the end of this golden day she is still there — her finished watercolor quarter-sheets laid down in a tidy row. I’m marveling at the current phenomenon of plein air painting — the togetherness and yet the apartness. I see how the dynamic of a group gives security and a reason to work and remain focussed. I see the value of imprinting one location, taking in everything possible in its good time — letting the environment slyly surrender its values. I see the rust and dust of studio-habit being vacuumed away by the gentle breeze. This person was one who didn’t show up for my noon demo. “Can you hear the ant-hill?” she asks. I listen hard, and eventually I can — a kind of crickling, almost a hum, running on their DNA I guess, not unlike the tiny traffic on a distant freeway.
“If this were all there was,” she says, “it would be enough, wouldn’t it?” I agree with her. She gathers her things, blows away the fallen petals, tucks away her work. The sun is now setting. Everyone is moving toward their cars and another world.
PS: “And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room;
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.” (A. E. Housman)
PPS: “My work is always better when I am alone and follow my own impressions.” (Claude Monet)
Esoterica: Serious practitioners report plein air to be zen-like, mind-altering, life-enhancing. The resulting work may be a secondary benefit. When a butterfly comes and sits on your palette, you know you are blessed.
The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.
Joys of plein air
by John Adkins, PAAA , Alabama, USA
I have been hooked on plein air since 1992 when I took a plein air workshop from Jim Wilcox in Taos, NM. I have since founded the Plein Air Artists of Alabama, a group of about 20 that paint en plein air once a month. It really is a spiritual experience. Hearing the birds, the wind and being in nature is really indescribable. It never ceases to amaze me that even though we are in the same location, no two artists paintings are the same subject. Being with other artists, but yet ultimately alone is so refreshing and stimulating. Your story of the ants reminded me of our last months painting trip to Springville, AL. A good friend and I were painting the spring budding trees and an 1800’s log cabin along a small creek. Neither of us had said much to each other, we were too busy painting. Suddenly the air was filled with small winged creatures. I wondered it we had invaded the land of the fairies, but no we were witness to a termite swarm in the middle of the woods. It was beautiful and went on for about 20 minutes. Nature renewing itself. It was a magic-filled day. Our paintings were magic also, about as different as could be, but some how tied to the moment. That is what I like about plein air, capturing a moment in time to share with the rest of the world.
by Ila Quinn
I settled onto a bench by a lake to sketch. Within moments I became aware of a magnificent monarch butterfly making repeated passes around my head. A few more minutes passed and this exquisite floating vision was joined by three others. Seconds later the four settled onto my face and head. As I sat motionless, they gently walked round and round, their delicately sticky feet exploring my entire head. I do not know how much time passed before they departed as I was visiting some other realm of consciousness.
by Judy de Calcar
The things you remember from your life are often those that imprinted the longest. Long term relationships are hard to erase. Years after loved ones are lost their memory remains constantly. In the efficient art production of today there is a tendency for professionals to buzz through and get as much reference by camera as possible. By putting away the camera and lingering over a location one draws from a deeper well that combines evolving stimuli with quiet thoughtfulness. “I plunged eagerly and passionately into the wilderness, as if in the hope of thus penetrating into the very heart of this Nature, powerful and maternal, there to blend with her living elements.” (Paul Gauguin)
by Ken Hanna, Sussex, UK
Just as valuable as the great outdoors is the artist’s private, even lonely, state of mind as he wanders an environment, any environment, for as long as it interests him. One thinks of Henry Moore sketching people in the London underground during the blitz. “The observation of nature is part of an artist’s life, it enlarges his form and knowledge, keeps him fresh and from working only by formula, and feeds inspiration.” (Henry Moore)
by S A Laflamme, Orleans, France
Part of the plein air phenomenon is due to the general greening that’s going on nowadays. People are grown weary of traffic, bureaucracy, competition, cubicles, 9 to 5, and have opened themselves to the purity of Nature — in other words they are trying to get off the anthill you were talking about. En Plein Air is a reasonable low-impact activity that has companionship in the degree one can handle it, natural communion, and sometimes satisfying results.
by Albert Christoph Reck, Swaziland
A picture is a picture, is a picture, is a picture… I am convinced that a fanatical art connoisseur is a Utopist and sits high in his ivory tower and struggles to find the right form. This type of Homo sapiens also develops to perfection the art of talking nonsense. As one of these fantastic dreamers spouted his nonsense, I stood next to him and was slowly emptied until there was just a vacuum.
“The Distraction of Abundance”
One of the main problems of outdoor work is what I call “The Distraction of Abundance.” This is the dominance and complexity of an abundant surrounding which conspires to put you off the track of getting down to reducing something to a format. With quite a bit of practice you learn to look after this problem. It helps just to know it’s there and has plagued plein air painters since the invention of the sport. A cardboard cutout viewer is a useful tool. I refuse to look through a camera or even take one along for fear I may wander off to get “material.”
by Harvey Kwok
The first impression is very important to me. That goes for meeting girls, and finding things to paint. If I like it I figure that it will be possible to get enough interested to make something out of it. I’m pretty fussy, but there is no point in just promiscuously going around doing things because they are there, or because some jaded instructor said it would be good to do. “Anything painted directly, on the spot, always has a strength, a power, a lively touch that is lost in the studio. Your first impression is the right one. Stick to it and refuse to budge.” (Eugene Boudin) from your Resource of Art Quotations.
by Joe Blodgett
Set up in a position where the strongest light will not hit on the surface of your work. In other words you’ve got it made in the shade. I use a big patio umbrella. If you use sunglasses use neutral (gray) ones. They can be an asset to the confusing tumble of tone values and colors. Double them from time to time if necessary (wear two pairs) — they give the value of a Claude Glass. Another useful idea is to put casual and speedy effort into the first painting of the day — a sort of “warm up.” You will settle better with this one behind you. Wear a path back behind yourself by taking it often. Standing is better than sitting. Arm’s length rather than fiddling. And, above all, don’t be afraid not to finish.
by Doris Doloros Judd
I used to paint in oils on location and when I switched to acrylics (for many reasons) I stopped liking to do it outside. This was mainly because of the tendency they have to dry so fast, especially in hot places, and also the color change that takes place. Any suggestions?
(RG note) Color change in acrylics is something you learn to live with, indoors or out. All I can say is that it becomes less a problem with time. With regard to the fast-dry situation consider some or all of the following:
Support (canvas, paper, panel) and palette in the shade (see letter above)
Spray pure water with “Windex” bottle on palette and/or work
Use an acrylic retarder — it helps a bit.
Keep your palette simply swimming with medium
Teach yourself to work faster and fresher
Switch to oils for outdoor work.
Acrylic on paper
by Win Shearer, Kelowna, BC, Canada
What about painting with acrylics on good watercolor paper as well as on canvas? Do you ever paint on paper? What is your opinion? I know canvas is probably best, but often I like to have glass over my paintings and find paper more versatile to choose matting for and then use glass. Maybe I am on a wrong road with this?
(RG note) There are no wrong roads. Only more difficult roads. Paper, however, is a most forgiving support and takes acrylic well.
by Andrea Pratt
I’d be interested to know how often artists follow the practice of repeating the same painting. (See Warren Criswell letter in last clickback) While at the recent Cornelius Kreighoff exhibition. (he was an eastern Canadian painter during the early part of the 19th century) I noticed in a room of many small figure paintings two paintings, well separated from each other, that were almost identical. I figured that this was something of a historical ‘situation,’ in the days before mass marketing, cheap offset lithography and photography. But just a couple of days later I received an ad in my email box from an artist who’d done a painting and offered to do one or several just like it for any interested parties. As someone who simply can’t/won’t paint unless there’s an element of exploration (I’m easily bored) I found this quite surprising. Am I just being ‘elitist’ or is this a common practice, driven primarily by commerce?
(RG note) Most painters of integrity change the size or format when they are repeating a motif. I find I get “hot” on a certain type of subject matter and try to explore as many avenues as I can. Recently I repeated a subject because I wanted to see if there could be a more efficient process in the execution. In the first painting I put in the shadows first and middle and highs after. The next time I reversed that order. The results were somewhat different and the experiment kept me interested. This sort of thing may not work for all painters who like to follow a reliable formula. Cornelius Kreighoff, while a latter-day legend, was also highly entrepreneurial — he had to be — and was undoubtedly cloning his stuff because he knew it would sell again.