Painting the Prairie

I’m not a plein aire painter, as you probably know if you’ve read this blog for a while. That fact didn’t stop me, though, from joining fellow artists from the area in the recent “Paint the Prairie” event at nearby Snowball Hill Prairie, part of the Missouri Prairie Foundation.

If you’re curious about the name — as I was — it’s because the hillside is covered with white prairie flowers in the spring and summer. It was also once a popular sledding hill.

I did not take along an easel or any paints. I did have a sketchbook with me, but rather than make only a few sketches, I chose to spend my time hiking, visiting with friends, and taking photographs.

Mostly I took pictures of the various types of prairie grasses growing in the area, but I got a few shots, too, of some of the artists who came out for the event.

Most likely I’ll paint a scene with the pale, purple coneflowers. I do love coneflowers. There was one other photo I took which I’ll probably use as a reference photo. It was not a picture of the prairie, but I fell in love with this scene:

Snowball 18

So despite the event being called “Paint the Prairie”, I’ll happily be painting these trees. Maybe I can add a few little dots of white and call them prairie flowers. But even though this scene isn’t really native prairie, it’s what I loved most, and that’s what we should be painting, right?

The opportunity to attend a plein air painting session was a good thing for me, if only as a way of reaffirming my hesitancy about painting out of doors. From time to time, weather permitting, I might do a little painting at our city park, but right now I’m still not comfortable lugging equipment around and trying to paint in public. Maybe someday I’ll get over my apprehension and give it a try, and maybe I’ll really enjoy it.

But, not today, and probably not tomorrow.

So, here’s a question, and I’d love to hear your opinions:

How important is plein aire painting?

I understand the value of being outdoors, on location, painting what we actually see rather than relying on photographs that have altered the colors. I always think I would love to be a plein aire painter, simply because I love being in nature, feeling the different moods, watching the interplay of lights and shadows, and breathing in the fresh air.

Am I cheating myself by not doing plein aire painting? Can I still be a landscape artist if I work only in my studio?

Do you paint en plein aire? Has it helped you improve your art or given you a greater appreciation of landscape painting?

Please share your thoughts!

11 Comments

  1. For me the biggest change was actually thinking about what I wanted to achieve out there. I don’t do finished paintings plein air, it is far more about the experience, about sitting there and really looking rather than just a quick photo. The result is neither here nor there (and that was the biggest mind frame change I had to make, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like anything but that devil that keeps looking at my work still often goes ‘failure’), it’s about sitting there for a while. Another big put off is other people. I’m very good at finding remote places but even then it can be really hard if someone croons ‘ooohhhh, isn’t it lovely’ when you know you’re having a bad moment! And yes, I do find it next to impossible to recreate the actual light in my ‘studio’, the detail may go out of the window working plein air but it is the light, working from a photo isn’t the same.

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      1. Watercolour, I don’t work in oil or acrylic. I tend to walk fairly long distances. I am now learning to use these sketches as a jumping off point for further home based work, learning process in progress.

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  2. As for me, it’s good to get outside to draw and paint or else I wouldn’t get enough fresh air and exercise. When I’m at home there’s more distractions. I need to finish straightening up my apartment before getting into an art project, but in plein air I can leave the dishes and wash behind and do it later. It took some time to get used to plein air. The public can be a different kind of distraction. The first few years of plein air I listened to my favorite songs on my iPod . That helped me get into the art zone and ignore other people unless they talked to me. Now I’m aware people are around me but I can still concentrate on my art. It is a lot of extra work packing the supplies you need, unpacking when you get there, packing again all the time. I still don’t want to draw and paint in a crowd but if I can find a place to stand off the main path I’m ok. There’s so many ways to approach an art project, plein air is one, and kind of popular these days because of the promotions by the magazine with contests etc. so more people are used to seeing artists out working, and they do enjoy seeing an artist at their favorite beautiful place. It’s like being up close and personal with the subject, more than working from a photo. You see the true colors and values of nature which makes the feeling of light easier to capture, and you feel the heat and cold and the bugs.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I think I’ll try to compromise somewhat and spend more time “en plein air” with my sketchbook. The idea of lugging a lot of supplies around is more than I want to think about, but I can enjoy carrying a sketchbook and a few drawing supplies. I’ve done sketching outdoors before, and I have enjoyed it. Maybe if I do it more… make a regular habit of it… do it at places other than our yard 🙂 I think making a “view-finder” would help me a lot, too. When I’m outside I get overwhelmed by the view.

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  3. If I may add something, the people can’t tell if your painting is working or bombing. They think it’s great no matter what you think, so, if they love it, don’t tell them it’s difficult, just say thanks.

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    1. Great tip! Thanks. I think my biggest fear, really, is having another artist look at the scene, look at my painting, and walk away snickering. I know that’s not likely to happen, but I’m still very subconscious about doing art around “real” artists.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I might dig out my Koi watercolors and try doing a little watercolor painting en plein air. Since I’m not good with watercolor, though… I do enjoy sketching outdoors, so that’s a start. 🙂

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