The Nature of the Plein Air Artist
This article will appear in The Art Guide 2018 (Phineas Press, 2018).
By Bill Paarlberg—It was a bright early morning in the late spring, and the plein air gods were smiling. My easel was set up in the cool shade of Prescott Park, with the towers of Memorial Bridge gleaming gold against a deep cobalt sky. The drawing had come together in a flash, with an ease that assured me that all was right in the world and great things were about to happen. Now the cleanest, smoothest watercolor wash in history was flowing off the end of my brush. This was a masterpiece in the making; what a glorious day to be—
“Hey kids!“ said the woman as she marched up with several children in tow, “Let’s see what the nice man is painting. He won’t mind if we watch.” And then the cutest little boy in the world tripped and stumbled headlong into my easel.
Painting outside of the box
Working en plein air, which is the arty term for “painting outside,” is not for the faint of heart. Every artist who works outdoors has a favorite horror story. But for the serious plein air painter, bad weather, interfering animals, and specialized equipment are all in a day’s work. En plein air is more of a mission than an amusement.
Most artists will tell you that experiencing your subject in nature is the only way to really see and feel what you’re trying to get into your work. “Nothing makes me feel more alive than being outside,” says painter and teacher Russel Whitten. “So it only makes sense that my studio be outside too… I am that much closer to capturing the essence of that moment and place.”
Plein air painting is experiencing a new surge in popularity. So for this article I talked to regional artists, gallerists, and collectors to find out what’s so special about working outdoors, and what motivates this hearty breed of artists. Let’s start with some history…
Plein air then and now
Artists have always experienced nature to inform their work. But painting outdoors didn’t rate it’s own chapter in the grand sweep of art history until the mid-nineteenth century, when the British painters J.M.W.Turner and John Constable, followed by the Barbizon School, made landscapes a serious subject. From there it was a short but significant hop to the Impressionists’ emphasis on the effects of outdoor light, and thus the necessity of working en plein air.
Over a hundred years ago the natural beauty of Ogunquit, Maine, helped it became one of America’s most important art colonies. Today, Chris Volpe and Todd Bonita operate the New Ogunquit Summer School of Art, where students use much the same tools, and do the same sort of work from literally the same ground as their art colony predecessors. Todd says, “To more-or-less quote Robert Henri: ‘We’re all solving the same problems as the guys did a couple hundred years ago.’ ”
Today “plein air” is often a badge of honor, signifying painters who complete all or most of their paintings outdoors. More than that, it’s become a brand that helps to distinguish artists based on their on-the-spot skill, and artwork based on its freshness and vigor. Plein Air Magazine publisher Eric Rhoads says, “Plein air painting is the largest movement in art history… it’s the new golf!” We can forgive Mr. Rhoads for hyping the brand a bit—after all, he’s got a magazine full of ads and events to sell—but he makes a point: plein air has become a big deal. There are now numerous plein air societies, many of which sponsor competitions (“$31,500 in Cash Prizes!”) and festivals. These are a great way to raise money for non-profits, and raise the profiles of artists and organizations. The public likes the spectacle of all those easels set up, and to witness the magic of creativity in action.
Why paint outdoors?
First of all, it’s just glorious to be outdoors. “Plein air painting is a perfect fit for me,” says painter, teacher, and gallery owner Todd Bonita. “It combines two of my favorite loves; painting and being outdoors in nature.”
I’m writing this in mid-winter, a season in which plein air painters display their true grit. I spoke with Russel Whitten when it was ten degrees outside and blowing: “After the snowfall tonight, or tomorrow morning for sure, I will be heading out to work.” About the same time, painter Barrett McDevitt posted the photo we feature here of his painting-in-progress of a snow-clad sand dune on Hampton Beach:
Mary Byrom is another regional painter and teacher who is famous for working outdoors, whatever the weather. She’s got her gear arranged so she can work under the raised rear hatch of her car. You know, for when it starts to rain. Todd Bonita says, “I have painted knee deep in the snow with Mary, and I can tell you from experience, we are closer to God for it.”
Lennie Mullaney organizes the New Hampshire Art Association’s annual Portsmouth plein air meet-ups. She says, “Plein air painting is about making a direct response to perception… Part of the thrill is that one is never completely in control…”
As for myself, working outdoors gives my work exuberance and zip. Whatever the hell Art is, you’re much closer to capturing it when you’re out there right in the middle of nature. Working in the studio is fine, and often the only way to get work done, but it isn’t half as informative, and the product isn’t usually as fresh.
A classic example is 19th century painting giant Winslow Homer. Back in the day, he took a lot of heat for his rough-and-ready plein air watercolor technique. But he was universally praised for his extraordinary ability to make you really feel the sun and the wind and the waves. That’s what plein air is all about.
Working outdoors forces me to better understand the subject. Outside, everything is moving. The tide goes out, the clouds move in, the sun goes down, the wind picks up. Every time you move your head the scene in front of you changes. It’s all in motion, and you have to catch it before it’s gone. This makes things more difficult, but also helps me paint the feeling of the thing rather than the thing. Chris Volpe wraps that concept up into some excellent advice: “Don’t try to copy nature, and know when to stop looking at the motif… use the landscape as a jumping-off place for something bigger and more imaginative.”
Each of us interprets the world a little differently, that’s part of what it means to be an artist. This is where plein air is a big help, because only after you look at a tree or a building or the waves for a while do you understand how the changing light best defines them for you. A photo can tell you what something looks like at a specific moment in time. But it can’t help you decide just which moment out of many is the one that says what you want to say. Which is something I learned from Pam DuLong Williams, a portrait and plein air artist at the Art on the Hill studios in Kittery.
When you’re working outdoors you’ve got to work fast. There is less time to think and fiddle with things. For anyone who works in watercolor, as I do, this is a good thing. Watercolor rewards fast, assertive work; it almost always looks better if you put it down once and leave it. One time out with the Kittery Art Association’s plein air group the bugs were so bad I had to work in a frenzy of buzzing and bites, without time or attention to do anything but whip it on there. The next time I had a chance to think—whoa!—a great little painting had appeared. If only I could learn to leave my thoughts behind like that more often.
Photographers Bill Moore and Bob Taylor are regulars at the Kittery sessions. Bob says, “Plein air groups have access to a lot of private places that are not generally open to the public… I also enjoy the camaraderie that develops between everyone.”
Are collectors interested?
Plein air work is often more affordable than studio works, because it’s painted quickly. But collectors, at least in our area, don’t seem that interested in just how a painting was accomplished.
“Most private collectors I know collect plein air only for the artists or places they are interested in,” says historian Richard Candee. “I, for example, collect Russell Cheney’s art of New England. I have many of his plein air works, some of which were exhibited as final art, but some which were just sketches or studies for studio work. The plein air study is commonly better to our eyes today, rather than the studio painting, just because it’s looser and less worked over.”
Mary Harding, curator of the George Marshall Store Gallery in York, says, “I’m impressed by plein air work and respect the need to respond to the real world, but I haven’t come across any collectors that specifically ask for it. I’d say most collectors just like good work, whether it’s done outdoors or not.”
Beyond the branding, and some fresh air, what do you get out of it?
Painter and teacher Don Demers, who sits on the board of advisors for Plein Air Magazine, reminds us that plein air’s recent commercial packaging often obscures its true importance for the artist: “It is wonderful that painting outside has become so popular. However, plein air painting is a form of study, and has been for hundreds of years. Because it is often done in public settings, there are unfair expectations for the results… The greatest landscape painters of the past worked outside on a regular basis and didn’t expect to have frameable paintings every time out… They were and we are building our skills of observation, honing our craft, and exploring our personal depths… All the other public manifestations are fine, but they are not the essence of the art form.”
And finally, here’s a very apt quote from Ontario painter Silvio Gagnon: “Painting from a reference is like reading a book about Paris at the local library. Plein air painting is like going to Paris for two weeks with your girlfriend.” See you outside.
Bill Paarlberg is a painter, illustrator, and editor from Kittery, Maine. At present he is working on a summer 2018 show of watercolors of Smuttynose Island, and editing a book on Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings and paintings are available at The Kennedy Gallery in Portsmouth, and at www.paarlberg.com.