I have very mixed feelings about plein air painting. I love the idea of it. It sounds so … well, artsy. In my imagination, I can see myself standing on a windswept prairie, a colorful scarf wrapped around my head, a thoughtful expression upon my face as I gaze at the wondrous scene before me. I have a paintbrush in my hand, I’m standing before my easel capturing all the nuances of the fresh morning air, the early sunlight, the breath-taking beauty of the world around me.
But that’s imagination. The reality — for me — is much different. Although I’ve done very little real plein air painting, I have tip-toed around the edges of it, and it’s not been an easy thing for me to do. I tend to forget things — like a palette or another necessity. I all but wear myself out just lugging all my equipment out to the car, driving to a painting location, and dragging everything out again to set up. And, of course, I’m hesitant about painting with people watching. I bluffed my way through it on my first outing, reciting phrases like, “Well, I try to paint what I feel more than what I see,” and silently gave thanks that my viewers — a couple out strolling through the park — caught me in the earliest stages of painting at a point where all I had was a lovely sky. Had they returned later, they would have seen a lovely mess!
My biggest concern when it comes to plein air painting is the simple fact that I can’t be trusted to draw what’s before my eyes. I remarked on this at an art club meeting, and I was assured that plein air paintings didn’t have to look exactly like the scene, but my fear goes a bit deeper than that. I’m not a good artist. My drawing skills are adequate but not great. What if I choose a scene that I simply don’t have the ability to draw or paint? How embarrassing!
That’s a bit how I felt when I attempted to paint a beautiful waterfall using my gansai. This was during our art club outing to the Arboretum. I enjoyed our field trip, and it helped me get past some of my plein air anxiety, yet still I would have liked to have been able to truly paint that waterfall, not just do a quick gansai color study that bears little resemblance to what I was looking at.
I know that drawing and painting in plein air would definitely help me become a much better artist. I’m coming to realize how important it is to sketch from life whenever possible instead of working with reference photos or creating imaginary scenes. And here’s the simple truth. If I want to learn to paint what’s in front of me, I have to get out there and do it. The only way to learn how to paint en plein air is by painting in plein air. Right? Right.
Well, yes, that’s right, really, but maybe I can still learn a few things even by painting indoors. That was the approach I took to today’s drawing assignment. I was supposed to get outdoors for my sketching, and I really would have loved to do just that. I am fairly comfortable sketching en plein air. It’s easy for me to grab a sketchbook, a couple pencils, an eraser, and a pencil sharpener and head out to the park. Sitting and drawing, I’ve learned, rarely attracts attention in the way painting at an easel does. Even though I sometimes encounter other hikers while I’m on the trails, I’ve never had curious onlookers peering over my shoulder to see my sketchbook.
Although I’d planned to get outside today for a bit of nature sketching, it didn’t happen. Even early in the morning, our temperatures were soaring. It was hot and humid. Oh, how much easier to stay inside and work from home. I’ll go plein air sketching another time, I decided. For today, I’d stay home and sketch a landscape using a reference photo.
I grabbed my phone and asked “Ms. Google” — our name for the Google Assistant — to show me landscape photos. I’d made an agreement with myself that I’d take the first one that came up. Here’s what appeared.
I can’t tell you much about this photo. Despite doing several web searches, I haven’t been able to identify it beyond saying that it’s obviously a botanical garden somewhere.
I was working only from a small image on my phone, and this was what I came up with:
This was instructive. Truly, it was. I began by doing a graphite sketch. I started with the sky and then drew in the shapes of the trees along the horizon. I added foliage, trying to note where the shadows were.
The quick sketch, of course, was the easy part — at least as far as the background goes. I felt like I was on familiar ground. I’ve done a lot of quick sketches of a lot of trees and bushes, and my main objective here was to try to get the shapes right. I even shaded in a bit of shadows to the left of the trees, and I was feeling good about my progress. But then I came to the rest of the scene.
Oh, there’s a pathway there. Well, maybe I’ll just leave that out.
And what is that weird black thing on the right? Oh, I can skip that.
Wait! There’s a post sticking up there. And there’s another? Do I have to include those?
And just how am I supposed to draw — and later paint — all those flowers and grasses in the foreground?
OK. Here’s the deal. One reason my plein air paintings will probably never look like what I’m painting is because I only want to paint the easy things. I want to just skip over or leave out anything I’m not sure how to draw or paint.
Later, when I uploaded the photo to my computer and saw it enlarged, I realized there are several more posts there, along with a fence, and I can get a better look at that strange “black thing” at the right. There’s a lesson to be learned here, too, of course. We can’t paint what we can’t see or identify, and this is one of the reasons why painting from reference photos is not always ideal. I should have enlarged the photo before I started drawing, but this “drawing assignment” was about sketching very quickly. I did the best I could to draw what I could see in the small photo on my phone.
As I realized how much I wanted to just leave out, I shook my head. This was originally supposed to be a plein air exercise, and the one thing I really want to learn is how to paint what I see in front of me. So, I made myself add in the posts that I saw. I insisted on adding that weird black thing, and I just took a deep breath and tried to figure out some way to suggest all those flowers.
No, I wasn’t very successful at it, but I accomplished one thing I set out to do. I drew and painted what I saw to the best of my ability. I know at times it’s all right to simplify scenes by leaving out certain elements or that it’s fine to create a better composition by omitting or re-arranging landscape elements, but for this my intention was to paint what was there whether I liked it or not and whether I knew how or not.
In that, at least, I think I succeeded.
Learning to draw and paint isn’t necessarily a straight-forward line of progress, and in many ways it’s not always about the results we achieve with each drawing or painting we make. Art has a lot to teach us, and there are many ways to get to where we want to go. One objective for me is to get out en plein air, to get over those anxious feelings, to find ways to make plein air painting an easier process. I’m working on it, and even though this little gansai painting in my sketchbook is (a) not a work of art, and (b) was not even done en plein air, it’s gone a long way toward helping me pack up my paints and get outside.