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My Plein Air Painting Journey


The term "en plein air" means "outdoors" in French. Painting en plein air is all about capturing the light and the subject in a particular moment. Fortunately, watercolor is a medium particularly suited for capturing a path of light! Plein air painting is pretty common these days but in the 1800's when the Impressionists first ventured outdoors to study and paint nature up close, it was seen as both unconventional and revolutionary in the art world.

On site with my new plein air easel

I recently completed an immersive three-day (virtual!) plein air watercolor course with the very skilled and charismatic plein air watercolorist, Brienne Brown. I was actually enrolled in a live workshop with her this fall - for which I signed up a whole year in advance- but in light of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus I jumped at the chance to enroll in this virtual workshop.


Maybe you're wondering how I painted outdoors virtually? The participants (there were only 5 which was fantastic) connected online via Zoom for 3 hours of instruction each morning and then were released into the world to complete plein air assignments in the afternoons. We submitted the assignments online and received personal feedback from the instructor the next morning in the Zoom class.


I was fortunate enough to enroll in the course with a friend, so we were able to venture out together for the first two days in our own backyards. On the first afternoon we were faced with the reality of plein air painting - it was hot, humid and close to 90 degrees! We tried to find some shady spots to set up our easels and complete our value sketches which would then inform a monochromatic value painting. Unfortunately, a thunderstorm came out of nowhere and I had to pack up and finish the second part of my assignment at home! (Shown below).

The view from my friend's back yard (!) and my attempt at a monochromatic value painting

The next afternoon, we met in my backyard and I completed a black & white value sketch and colored painting, which was 100x more challenging than a monochromatic painting! As expected, I was forced outside of my comfort zone trying to paint directly from nature. It’s very hard to explain how the very predictable, relaxing process of painting inside my studio gets turned upside down when attempting plein air painting. Especially with watercolors, the humidity and unpredictable air conditions impact drying times and how the paint feels and behaves on my brush and my paper. The end result is completely exasperating and makes me feel like I'm picking up a brush for the very first time! It feels pretty overwhelming and miserable. I was fairly unhappy with my finished painting but Brienne had some very helpful and constructive feedback the following morning about how it could have been approached to improve the outcome.


Another major challenge with plein air painting is that the light is constantly changing! The photo that I took below shows areas in shadow that were not actually present when I began to paint


On the third and final day of the workshop, we were challenged to complete a 60 minute "quickie" exercise. Again, I entered my backyard for this assignment, selecting the beehive, garden door and a sunflower as subjects because I could see all 3 from a single (shady) spot. I set my timer and dove right in. Time absolutely flew by, making it a very stressful experience as I raced against the clock to complete the 3 small (5x7") paintings. I certainly do not like painting under pressure and I felt like I was on an episode of Top Chef! It was very difficult to withhold judgment about the outcome and force myself to clear my mind and focus on the painting process here.


Again, fairly unhappy with my work but I know that it helped me learn and that it will take consistent practice to improve.


I think working directly from nature enables the artist to capture the true spirit of the subject. My goal is to set up my easel outdoors once a week to practice and within time I hope to see some progress. Fortunately the easel came with a handy backpack so I can take all of painting gear with me on my hiking excursions, too!


 

A Plein Air Master

Below is a photo of Andrew Wyeth painting en plein air in a field on his farm in Maine that overlooks the ocean. The hood of his car made a comfortable seat with the bumper as a footrest. Sometimes he even used the car's hood as a palette for mixing his paint! I like that he brought along his dog for company on his painting excursions.

Source: Williamwaterway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)


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