My art studio is a 10-by-5-ft. space in the best-lit corner of our garage-turned family room. Like many amateur and aspiring artists I manage to be creative without the luxury of a quaint garden cottage filled with natural light and protected by a locked door that actually keeps kids and dogs from tramping through any time day or night. While not a student of plein air painting, last spring I started working on the back porch in order to find a little more privacy and better lighting conditions. Drawing still lifes with my pastel chalks in the golden light of late afternoon inspired me to get out my oil paints and do my best to channel Claude Monet.
Developing the quick strokes needed for plein air was my first challenge. It seemed that every time I looked up my subject had changed dramatically; the light had deepened and the shadows had lengthened. I began to understand something about the Impressionists like Monet and Renoir who made us view nature in a new way – they had to work fast! Those spontaneous brush marks were more than simply a style choice. They were trying to fuse a transitory moment onto the canvas while the sun dried their paints and every gust of wind brought a new cloud to alter the colors of the sky. With no time to fuss or finesse they slapped on the color in confident dabs in an effort to capture a moment that would never come again. My appreciation for the masters grew.
In the series “Painting the American Landscape” PBS reports that open air painting grew in popularity in the nineteenth century after paint manufacturers found a way to pre-mix oil paints and put them in convenient tubes. With the help of a pochade box (a transportable easel) artists could tramp off to their favorite foothill, riverbed or rooftop and paint the scenes that made their hearts flutter. My suburban backyard didn’t exactly elicit any fluttering so I decided to pack all the basic supplies into the travel easel I’d inherited from my grandmother and head to the beach where I always found inspiration. Sand-gritted wind would not dissuade me.
My enthusiasm for painting outdoors outweighs my talent, but I don’t let that dissuade me either. Whether perched beachside or roadside I’m reminded of the one-minute studies my favorite art teacher was so fond of. With no time for self criticism or over thinking we could spend the entire class time drawing our model in 60-second poses. The floor would be littered with sheets of drawing paper ripped from the pad as we rushed for a clean piece on the teacher’s bell. What fun. Plein air painting may not offer quite the same rush of creativity as those one-minute studies, but unlike the careful drawings I usually tend toward outdoor painting forces me to hush the inner critic and focus on the lavender light that will be three shades darker if I take too long thinking about how to paint it.
Until Next Time,