Why Plein Air?
Some twenty years ago I started painting lessons in studio from a good artist. My thinking was if I could learn the “tricks” I could paint like her. So I asked quite earnestly, “How do I quickly become a good painter?” Without hesitation, she said to paint from life whenever you can. The “quickly “ thing didn’t come about but I did get good. In my first class we painted portraits from life. Eventually I worked up the nerve to go outside and paint from nature.
The first time I went out I fell flat on my face. I made all the beginner mistakes and was overwhelmed with too much information. I didn’t give up though, and overcame the obstacles that faced me when I first set foot outside. I realized that photographs interpret what is out there, they act as a filter and summarize the image. In a recent workshop I started the students in studio painting from a photograph. After they had blocked in the painting we went outside to the actual location and they had a real eye opening experience. They could see first hand how much more information was available outside. They were blown away.
But there is something more important than visual information when painting plein air.
I describe it as mood and risk. When painting on location we are forced into time constraints. Within a couple of hours the lighting changes. This is where the risk comes in, forcing us to decide with our very best intuition what is most important to put down on canvas. With risk comes discovery, success, or failure along with new depths of understanding. If I am lucky enough to evoke a mood in a painting, it is because I have been enveloped by the natural surroundings. Being on location is a fun thing to do but being out there and feeling a place gives me a sense of humility as to what my place is in the big picture of things.