Early this year I set out, along with my teacher Chris DiDomizio, to make a habit of plein air painting (painting outdoors). There are times when you have to step out of your comfort zone to learn and this was one of those for me.
There is an uncomfortable period of adjustment in the beginning days(months) of learning plein air. Even skilled artists who are not experienced at painting from life are humbled. Plein air painting requires a whole new approach than studio work, there's a big learning curve. So what are the spoils that make this battle so worth the effort? I will share below several ways painting en plein air(open air) is enriching to your life and art.
The following paintings show a little bit of my progression the last several months of getting acclimated to plein air watercolor. I normally wouldn't be eager to show these early paintings but i think it's encouraging to see the progression. It's easy to judge ourselves too quickly and give up but we just need more time and persistence. All of these are using the triadic palette as shown in the "Triadic Palette" blog
A Sensory Experience
By experiencing a place with all five senses you have a richer, deeper sense of a place/subject. Various sensations such as the cool crisp air, a warm sunny breeze, a thick humid atmosphere. A camera can capture the image but will you remember the feeling? How about subtle smells of pine trees, the air near falling water, the scent of spring laurels nearby. What one element of art would convey the smell?
Where in the painting can you use color, contrast, texture and shape to convey these sensations in a visual way? When you experience the subject it is stimulating in a way a photo is not and it is much more real to you, you are more connected to it personally.
Photography Can Be Limiting
As most artist in the 21st century, I've mostly painted from photos. But even though the camera is amazing at recording a scene, it falls short of capturing everything as you see it with your own eyes, colors often don't get captured the same way, the atmosphere of the surroundings often doesn't get exposed as you remember it. And special feelings about a place can be easily forgotten. Taking note of these things with studies from life can add new depth and richness to your painting.
Capturing the Essence
Painting from life demands you to work very quickly, in 2 hours the lighting can change so much which alters your shadows and colors. 2-3 hours is a good time limit, requiring you to simplify and by simplifying you must leave out details that don't have as much to do with the overall feeling, impression and mood of a scene. There's no time for realism, you must leave the un-important clutter and detail behind and just try to simply capture the essence.
Experimenting And Taking Risks
Knowing you have only 2 hours to complete a painting(small) makes you work differently, pushing you out of your comfort zone, it requires experimenting and discovering new approaches, new techniques. You must be more bold, use more thick paint with as big a brush as you can. You can let shapes flow more freely into each other(with watercolor) and experiment with various techniques, ways to make a mark, (dry-brush, wax, guache from the tube, drizzled guache(!), scratching, spritzing, flicking water, bold gestural strokes, etc.) Plein air is a good place to experiment and take risks. Bold, impressionistic marks take risks but you must take the risks to gain confidence. It can be hard to take risks and be bold in the studio when you are used to a slow, methodical, realistic, layering approach and you don't want to risk ruining a painting that has 150+ hours on it! Plein air painting is a safe place to get dangerous! and when you paint dangerously often enough it will naturally and confidently carry over into your studio work. John S. Sargent described painting watercolor en plein air as "making the best of an emergency."
Soaking in Beauty of Creation
Plein air painting has brought life to me, not only is it exciting to be learning but it is so enjoyable to explore and find special places in nature to just sit for a couple hours and enjoy, it is very enriching. I've found some favorite spots but the potential for new discoveries is exciting. And even if your painting isn't great, the experience still is. With the right set up(see the blog "plein air supply list") you can fit all supplies into the back pack which makes it very easy and portable, it's fun too because it gives you freedom to even hike with it, which gives you far more options of great places to explore and paint.
A Thriving Community of Artist's
Plein Air paintings popularity is returning as artists are finding the enjoyment it offers. There is an abundance of plein air groups active all across the world which offers artists the enjoyment of painting with others week to week sharing the experience, growing in friendships and making art not such a solitary endeavor.
There are also many plein air competitions where artists converge and enjoy camaraderie and painting in a competitive atmosphere, competitive because there are cash awards at these events.
I want to encourage you to take on the challenge, persist and you'll grow, adding more to your art vocabulary. You'll gain new skill and confidence along the way and greatly enjoy the process. The greater the challenge, the more glorious the victory. Persistence breaks resistance!
You can see the latest paintings are better and were done in almost 1/3rd of the time spent on the earlier ones. I finally felt pleased with the last one, below, as a study.
I have a lot to learn, and that is exciting, I'm looking forward to the next few years of plein air and what I learn and discover!