Yesterday morning marked another step on my journey as an artist. I took my portable easel, put my oil paints and other supplies in plastic bags, grabbed a canvas panel and headed out the door en route to my first experience with painting en plein air.
Artist’s Network defines plein air as “leaving the four walls of your studio and experiencing painting and drawing in the landscape.” From that definition, I’ve been experiencing plein air for a long time — but only with sketching and a bit of watercolor dabbling. Until recently, whatever outdoor drawing I’d done had been close to home — like that evening when I first sat outside and drew rocks. There was also the awful attempt I made at drawing our hostas. This was only weeks after I first started learning to draw. That horrible sketch was the first — and only — drawing I’ve thrown away. I buried it so far down in the trash bin it would never again see the light of day.
On a side note, every time I step outside and see the rocks still sitting in the neighbor’s yard, I smile. And every time I walk past those hostas, I roll my eyes and groan.
In recent weeks, I’ve expanded my art world. I regularly walk to a nearby fishing lake with sketchbook and pencils in hand. I visit our city park often, sketching and sometimes taking photographs to use as references for my paintings. I’ve become comfortable drawing en plein air — but what about painting?
I got a very early start and even though the bed was unmade and there were dishes in the sink, I took a deep breath and headed to my car. It was about 6:30 AM, still cool, still comfortable, and already light enough for painting. It required three trips from house to car to get all my “baggage” — easel, art supplies, purse — and as I walked off the porch a sudden thought came. How was I supposed to bring home a still-wet oil painting? I noticed a cardboard box on the porch, grabbed it, and off I went.
For a fleeting moment earlier, I’d thought about taking my little sports-car. What a silly thought! No way could I fit all my painting paraphernalia in a two-seater. Well, maybe with the top down, but that wasn’t happening. So, I packed it all in to my old Celica GTS — which is also a fairly small sports car, but at least it has a backseat. And off I went!
“This sure seems like a lot of trouble,” I muttered to myself as I headed to the park, but then I told myself, “Yes, but this is what artists do.” It’s fun, you see, to remind myself that I really am an artist now.
It was a beautiful morning, and as I drove through the park I saw several places where I might want to paint — someday. For my first plein air painting, I knew I needed to be at Shelter House #9. It’s my favorite, if only because it’s the most secluded. Unless you walk through a wooded area, you can’t see much of the lake, but that’s all right. For a tree-lover like me, it’s a lovely place.
Here’s a quick look toward the lake:
I set my easel up near the edge of the shelter house and unpacked my supplies. “This is what an artist does,” became my mantra for the morning. I breathed in the fresh late spring air, and it was time to begin.
Oops! As I thought of colors and paint mixing, I realized I’d forgotten to bring a palette. Oh, well, what to do? Returning home wasn’t an option. I was there, and by golly, I was going to paint en plein air — palette or not.
I had a watercolor pad in my art bag, so I grabbed a sheet from it to use as a makeshift palette. Not perfect, but you do what you have to do — at least, that’s what an artist does, right?
Painting en plein air is different, and I’m sure most of you have already done it and already know that fact. This was a first-time experience for me, though, and there’s a lot to be learned when contemplating nature and attempting to capture her beauty with oils and canvas.
My first realization — I hope I can explain this in a way that makes sense — is that it was difficult for me to determine boundaries in the scene. Where did it begin and end? Since I was working in a three-dimensional location, how could I convert it to two dimensions? I couldn’t quite figure out how and where to place the horizon and how far upward the sky should extend. In reality, you see, it’s infinite. It goes on forever. Simple facts, of course, but mind-blowing realizations for a first time plein air painter.
I resolved the problem the best I could by “framing” the scene I would paint. Just as artists do, I held up my hands in a square and cast about for a good view — meaning, for me, something I might actually be able to draw and paint.
Once I had a scene in mind, I sketched it in. Usually I work on a canvas or canvas panel that’s been toned with acrylic, but this was a somewhat spur-of-the-moment occasion, so I simply sketched directly on the panel with graphite rather than drawing in the scene with oil.
I put in my horizon line, considered the layout of the ground, the placement of the large trees…and I plunged forward with painting.
Remember, it’s not so much about painting exactly what you see as it is painting what you feel.
Those were the words of my inner teacher, and I was quite thankful that my cranky art teacher had remained at home. My teacher for the day was a kind and caring instructor, one who appreciated nature and enjoyed this time of spiritual communion.
I followed my feelings and put in a pale, blue-gray sky. Next I worked on the foreground, mixing and blending colors.
About this time a young couple came strolling by. The park is a place where a lot of early morning walkers come. I love hiking the trails, too. Of course, when they saw me at my easel, they were curious.
“Mind if I take a look?” the young man asked. Ordinarily I might cringe a bit at the thought of showing someone a painting in progress, but my sky and my grass actually looked fairly good.
“I don’t paint exactly what I see,” I explained, drawing upon the wise words of my inner teacher. “It’s more about painting what I feel.” There were compliments and remarks about my talent. I had a ready response for that, too. “It isn’t really talent. It’s patience, persistence, and a lot of practice.”
All in all, it felt good to be an artist in that moment, to have curious on-lookers peering over my shoulder as I worked, and to be pleased with what I was doing. Of course, the difficult part of the painting still lay ahead, and yes, painting all those trees proved to be far more than I could handle, but I was proud of myself for making an attempt.
Although I didn’t come away with a masterful work of art, I was able to return home with something to show for my time. I’d like to work more on mixing greens, and I will continue to work on painting techniques for those leafy canopies. I’ll work more, too, on creating lights and shadows.
In many ways, this painting reminds me of a watercolor I did two years ago. I titled it “Grove of Trees”.
Two different media, two years apart, and yet there’s a singular idea there. Obviously landscape painting is something I love, and in time, I’m going to paint a grove of trees that truly expresses my love for nature.
Now that I’ve gotten over my irrational fear of painting en plein air, I’m looking forward to many more mornings — and possibly evenings — sitting outdoors with my easel, brush in hand, paints on my palette. I plan to put together a small “on-the-go” painting kit, and I’ll be keeping an easel in my car. Then, I can just grab-and-go on a moment’s notice.
After all, this is what artists do, and I am an artist, after all.