Why Plein Air Painting?

Plein Air Painting? No, thank you!

For many years, I refused to consider adding plein air painting to my artistic practice. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what plein air painting was. (If the term en plein air is new to you, it’s used by artists to describe painting outdoors, on location.) I couldn’t ignore plein air painting, after all, it seemed like every art magazine featured artists who insisted that painting en plein air was the only way to really get the essence of their subject, or advertised a plein air workshop or competition. It didn’t matter. I knew only that my plein air paintings showed the essence of my lack of skill more than the scene before me, and that didn’t seem likely to change any time soon.

Why would I take a deliberate step back from the paintings I was achieving in the studio to paint indistinguishable messes of color in conditions that were often not comfortable for the artist?

It’s funny, because as a young artist, there were many things that other artists did that I didn’t consider to be relevant to my own artistic journey. It seems like it wasn’t so much that I needed to be converted to their way of thinking as to recognize that maybe I misunderstood the purpose of the assignment from the beginning.

Example: Value Studies

What I heard artists say: “Without a value study, your painting will lack depth and look lifeless.”

This led me to think that value studies offered some kind of deeper insight - adding MORE information to a scene that already felt complicated. I couldn’t handle the overwhelm!

What I needed to know: Value studies provide a way of simplifying a scene to make it less complicated, so you don’t need to render every color, shape and value shift perfectly.

There are a lot of reasons why plein air painting stinks.

  • Weather. Here in northern Canada, it’s often too cold to paint, even in summer, a cool wind can make it uncomfortable for the artist, or provide gusts that leave me chasing my supplies across the landscape. (This is why they sell “stone bags” for photographers - they work for art easels too!)

  • Distractions. In an urban setting, you might feel exposed to the eyes of passersby. In the country, insects can land — and stick to — your palette, or fly into eyes, wet paper and paint water.

  • Changing conditions. Outdoors, the light is always changing, shadows casting in new angles and color temperature changing moment by moment as clouds move across the sky. Living subjects (people or animals) will move away and leave you relying on memory, or require quick gestural drawing to catch them in position.

  • Body of information. Framing your subject is the first goal - the panorama stretches 360 degrees, so you need to ascribe boundaries to your scene. And the sheer volume of information can feel mind-boggling; how do you depict everything you see? How can you leave anything out?

No obligation!

Because there are so many distracting, changeable conditions when it comes to plein air painting, it’s likely not going to feel like a good use of your time if your goal is productivity. If you are looking to create good paintings, you’re better off painting in the studio where you can control conditions and the outcome to a greater extent. You don’t have to be a plein air painter to be a good painter, and I’m here to set your mind at ease on that. The goal is always to work within your limitations to create art that brings you joy. How freeing it is to realize that while another artist might be a passionate advocate for one method, growth can happen right where you are at, and it can and should feel achievable and enjoyable!

The Benefits of Plein Air Painting

Over the last few years I’ve started to rearrange my perspective on plein air painting, however, so much so that I’m leaving in a few days to teach a plein air workshop in Saskatchewan, and I’ve booked a plein air workshop in Italy for fall of 2020! These two events are stretching and teaching me, and my plein air excursions at home and when I travel are bringing new insights into the creative process that have helped me to continue growing as an artist.

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Landry River Hills - plein air study

Misunderstanding Plein Air Painting

What I heard artists say: “I can always tell which paintings are created from photos and which are created from life.”

What I heard: Studio paintings are inferior.

What I heard artists say: “Plein air painting is the best way to develop your artistic skills and ability to see.”

What I heard: Without plein air painting, you can’t grow as an artist.

What I needed to understand: Plein air painting provides a way of experiencing your subject that can add richness and depth to your paintings, IF you combine it with your existing creative practice and allow it to serve you rather than becoming its slave.

Plein air painting comes with struggles. It’s not easy to do! It’s even harder if you think it’s going to immediately strengthen your weaknesses and result in more impactful paintings.

My Own Plein Air Turning Point

Last year, I took my sketchbook and paints with me to Costa Rica, where Wade and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Sitting on the beach, I struggled to capture the colors and patterns of the sea and landscape before me. I lifted my head from the paper, and set down my brush and just sat for a while. I felt the breeze, warm on my face, and listened to the birds in the trees and the tumbling surf. Behind me, a path led to the resort and gardens of tropical flowers. One day previous, we’d walked through an orchid garden.

Surrounded by paradise, I turned the page and picked up my brush again, this time, to paint shapes and colors only, inspired by the weekend’s events, my mood and the peace of my beachside seat, and what came forth has been, so far, my favorite page in that particular sketchbook, and my gold standard for future plein air painting excursions. Not because it was a perfect painting, but because it was the first time I understood that I could channel my mood and my emotions, not just in the studio, but while painting en plein air.

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I’ve learned that when plein air painting became playful, detached from the obligation to depict what I saw, and used to emphasize emotion and experience over detail, plein air painting became mine. My tool to help me grow as an artist, yes, but also to experience my world as a participant, not taking the view and inserting it into my painting, but sharing my own individual perspective as an offering to the time I’ve invested in that plein air painting session.

I’m choosing to see plein air painting as a gift. Taking the time to give myself to what I see, to create an intentional process of engaging more deeply with the place in which I find myself. Most of the time, I don’t see a masterpiece on the end of the brush, but I do see an experience that I savor more deeply for the time I’ve invested in physically connecting my body to the place, and the place to my art.

Have you developed a plein air painting habit? How have you made plein air painting your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Angela Fehr18 Comments