My husband hates to hear “I can’t…” Unfortunately, I tend to say that a lot, far more than I should, I know. I am easily frustrated, often disappointed, and occasionally dealing with situations beyond my physical capabilities. “I can’t…” I can’t do a lot of things, and I hate catching myself using those words because I know my husband has good reason to dislike them. As often as not, we really can do things we say we can’t.
There are exceptions, of course, and I’ve learned to maneuver around those dreaded words a bit. Instead of saying “I can’t open this jar,” I’ll re-phrase and tell my husband, “I need help opening this sauerkraut.” Whenever possible, instead of saying “I can’t”, I’ll come up with an alternative, such as “I’m not sure how to do this,” or something else that conveys my problem without saying “I can’t.”
Right now, though, I’m about to come right out and say it. I appreciate all the advice, encouragement, and helpful suggestions I’ve received from Mitch Zeissler (Aetherpx), Lovie Price (Wake Up!), Chris Ludke (The Plein Air Experience), and others who have encouraged me to get outside and paint en plein air, but sorry, folks, when it comes to plein air painting, I just can’t do it. I’ve tried. And, yes, I’ve come away with new knowledge about art, about myself, about life. But even so, for the moment, at least, I am not a plein air painter.
My most recent excursion was last Thursday morning. After chatting with both Mitch and Chris — and reading an excellent post Mitch wrote for his blog about his plein air kit — I committed to getting outside for a bit of artwork. I love getting outdoors. I enjoy going to our City Park and hiking the trails there. The weather was perfect. What could go wrong?
Well… how about my attitude? As Chris pointed out to me in a recent comment, “The whole art game is depending on your attitude.” Oh, so true. Unfortunately that puts me figuratively “behind the 8-ball” before I even begin. (Click the link if you’d like to know the origin of that expression.) When it comes to plein air painting, my attitude is not good.
Plein air painting — or just the thought of it — makes me nervous. Very nervous. Yes, it’s an irrational fear. No, people aren’t going to be swarming around wanting to see what I’m doing, and even if they are, who cares? I understand that. I accept that. But that doesn’t ease my jangled nerves. To be blunt about it, the thought of painting en plein air puts me very close to a genuine panic attack.
But let’s skip past that for the moment. I did go out to the park on Thursday. I took along a new 12-color set of Faber-Castell oil pastels, a small pad of 5 x 7 white Stonehenge paper, and the best attitude I could muster. In the time I spent at the park, I completed two oil pastels. Here is my oil pastel painting of a cluster of black-eyed susans.
I’ll give myself a little credit here. These do look like yellow flowers. I guess I got that right. They’re not well-drawn yellow flowers, the whole thing is more than a bit messy, and maybe you can tell that I was feeling a lot of frustration when I did this. It was my second plein air attempt for the morning.
My first attempt also included all the yellow flowers, but you’d probably never know that without me telling you. It was, plain and simple, a disaster.
Want to see what the scene actually looked like?
Only with a lot of imagination can you see any similarity between what I was looking at and what I ended up with. Why? Because I am not a plein air painter. For me, right now, it’s too over-whelming, too nerve-wracking, and much too frustrating.
Going out plein air painting should be an enjoyable experience, especially when I’m going to a place I love. But from the start, sad to say, it’s anything but pleasant for me. Let’s look at Thursday’s outing, shall we? Once I had committed to getting out and giving it a try, I agonized over what I’d do when I got there. First, there was the decision on what medium to use. I’d love to take my oils, but it’s so messy, so complicated. Watercolors? My precious gansai? Well, I’ve gone out plein air painting with my gansai. I enjoy that but I know the results I achieve aren’t good. I’m not a watercolor artist. How about that new set of oil pastels? It had been a long time since I’d used oil pastels, so that’s what I opted for. It was probably not a good choice, but seriously, there was no good choice. No matter what I chose, I was destined for failure. Attitude again, remember?
I agonized, too, over what I would paint. How would I find the right scenic view? Our park is lovely, but not a place of grand, sweeping vistas. I love our hiking trails, but could I find a good composition there? Maybe I should just focus on a leaf or a flower, I decided. Mitch made the same suggestion in an encouraging chat that morning. He wrote:
Also, just because you’re outside, don’t feel pressured to do a “landscape”… it can be a study of a flower, the framing of a tree trunk and branch, a leaf, a rock, whatever!
Keeping his words in mind, I put together my little plein air oil pastel kit and hit the road about 6:30 AM. It’s a short drive to the park, so I was there within minutes. Now, where to go? I mentally ticked off the advantages and disadvantages of the various places I’ve gone in the past, and I decided that Shelter House #7 would be my best choice. It’s near the start of one hiking trail, there’s a large shelter house at the site, and the surrounding area is very pretty. I’ve gone there often on my nature hikes, and I’ve always been drawn to the lovely yellow flowers growing abundantly there.
Putting aside Mitch’s words and my own thoughts about flower studies, I gazed at the scene before me. I liked what I saw. Could I paint it with my pastels? I grabbed my phone, took a quick photo — for comparison purposes, not to use as a reference — and settled into a comfortable position.
And now… what?
Herein lies the next reason why plein air is a challenge for me. Despite six years of drawing experience, and five years of oil painting, I still don’t have the necessary skills to take what I see in nature and create a painting from it, at least, not on a large scale. It’s simply too overwhelming. I don’t know where to even begin.
I see shapes.
I see colors.
I see shadows.
I see… everything! And it’s all coming at me all at once. I become absolutely paralyzed, first from fear and second from simply not knowing what to do or how to do it. At this point, honestly, I’m ready to burst into tears.
And so I try to settle down. I take a deep breath. I look for a starting point.
With this particular scene, I started by using graphite to lay out the basics. I saw tree trunks in the background. I tried to note the shapes of the flower area, and I made a few marks to represent other greenery in the background and bits of grass in the foreground. As you can see, though, my sketch wasn’t much. It was merely a frantic attempt to get something on the page. Here I’ve darkened the image a bit in hopes of making it more visible.
Could I have done better? Could I have made a more detailed sketch? Yes, of course, but here’s my problem. I don’t know if that’s what I’m supposed to do or not. When plein air painting, does one take time to make a complete sketch, or does one just hit the highlights as I tried to do? I suppose the answer varies from one artist to the next, but I haven’t yet found the answer for myself.
By this point, I’m discouraged. I don’t know what I’m doing, so how can I do it?
“Well, just jump in and do something!” I took a deep breath, opened my pastels and started making more horrible marks. I put in a sky, even though there was really no sky visible, but not knowing how to successfully draw all that leafy greenery in the background, I figured I’d have a lot of holes. I went over the tree trunks (later I extended them downward) and I scribbled everywhere with two different green pastels.
About that time someone drove up to the shelter. I wanted to run and hide. I didn’t want anyone seeing the ugly painting I was working on. Fortunately, it was a dog-walker who strolled off in a different direction, sparing me the embarrassment of showing my art, but not sparing me the sense of panic I felt.
I looked again at my painting, realized the truth — I can’t paint this scene — and became even more frustrated. I took my frustrations out with lots more scribbles, then grabbed a brush, dipped it in alcohol, and just went over the entire thing, hoping to blend it a bit. Nothing helped, of course.
Plein air painting is great and there are many artists who love it. I’m not one of them right now, because right now, I’m not at a point where I can do plein air painting. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know where to begin. And, realistically, I don’t really have the necessary skills to be a successful plein air painter — not with watercolor, not with pastels, and not with oils. I can only shake my head and say, “Sorry, I just can’t do it.”
After my first fiasco that morning, I grabbed my graphite again and sketched the cluster of flowers. I was on more familiar ground there, but even so with my level of frustration being so high, I couldn’t concentrate on drawing. I just did the best I could as quickly as I could, then set about coloring the illustration with my oil pastels. At least I had something recognizable to show for my morning.
I came home wondering if I should just give up art altogether. My plein air experience that morning all but convinced me that I’m not an artist and I never will be, so why try? Well, here’s why.
- I am an artist, just not one who is comfortable with plein air.
- I do enjoy art, just not doing it in plein air.
- I can create good paintings, just not in plein air.
Do you see a pattern emerging here? I’m just not a plein air painter… at least, not yet. Maybe in time I will be, but then again, maybe not.
Could plein air painting help me become a better artist? It’s highly recommended by many, so maybe I should keep trying, right? Well, it sounds good, but there’s more to it. It’s good to first understand why plein air painting is touted as being such a helpful practice. Here’s a little info from Draw Paint Academy:
Plein air painting is a highly recommended practice, especially for landscape painters. It helps you hone your skills by forcing you to paint with a sense of urgency as the light quickly retreats or otherwise changes.
Oh, wait! What if I’m not at that point yet? What if worrying about capturing the light isn’t something I’m concerned with? What if I’m still at a beginner’s level and am still working to learn the basics of putting paint on the canvas? That being the case, maybe I don’t need to think about plein air painting quite yet.
There are other advantages in working from life, I know, but for me — at my skill level — those advantages probably aren’t all that significant. It’s more important for me to truly grasp all the basics, to really know how to use fundamental techniques. From personal experience, I can say unequivocally that I’m just not ready for plein air painting. It’s about like asking a first-grader to solve a difficult algebraic equation. That student might know how to count and might even be familiar with addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication, but would still lack the skills required for higher levels of mathematics.
And so it is with me and plein air painting. I’ve learned a few basics. I’m familiar with the elemental concepts of art. But I’m not ready for plein air.
At least, I’m not ready for plein air painting — with oils, watercolor, acrylics, or pastels of any form. But now I’m going to back-track here, do a bit of an about-face, and talk about how much I love plein air drawing. I began nature sketching, as I call it, several years ago, and while I was a little nervous on my first outing, I soon got over it. I’ve spent many enjoyable mornings and afternoons sitting outside, sometimes at home, sometimes at a park or seated along one of the hiking trails, sketchbook in hand, totally engrossed in a graphite drawing. I can spend hours sitting beneath a tree, contentedly working on a drawing, blissfully unaware of the passing of time.
Even when people come around, I’m not bothered. Most passersby do just that — they pass on by — but occasionally some curious onlooker will ask if they can see what I’m doing. With my graphite drawings, I’m always happy to share, because my graphite drawings are done with patience and care. They show my love of nature. They reflect the beauty around me. I’m proud of my graphite drawings.
So this is where plein air and I can come to terms with one another. Let me sit there with my sketchbook and drawing pencils, and I’m happy. I go into that meditative zen state where I can find peace of mind through art. Time stands still. I love every mark I make because it’s part of something bigger and grander than who I am and what I’m doing.
Painting? Nope. Pastels? Nope. Watercolor, gouache, or gansai? Nope. I haven’t yet developed enough skill with those media to make plein air painting a successful experience for me. But graphite… yes. I love plein air drawing, so from now on, when we talk about plein air, just let me talk about nature sketching and drawing. It’s not the same, I know, but for me, nature sketching is a wholly positive experience. I learn from it. It helps me improve my drawing skills. It affirms that I am an artist and that I can do plein air — as long as I do it in my own way.