It’s been a great year for me with plein air ( on location) painting. I’ve done it a lot and I learned something every time I did it.
I believe that some significant proportion of artists don’t do plein air for various reasons and that can be absolutely fine. However, for other artists it’s an essential part of their painting process. They get stale working from photographs too much. I count myself in that group. The speed, and decision-making needed in plein air painting keep me much fresher and they push me beyond my comfort zone and sometimes that’s very good. It’s such a wonderful exercise for me to take the complexity of a scene and try to put it together in a simplified and effective composition, with good values, and with some story to it. I almost always go into a slightly heightened state when I paint on location. I get ‘in the zone’ so to speak.
What Is Plein Air Painting?
I always thought that plein air meant that you did the entire painting on location. I found out this summer at the Plein Air Convention & Expo that the definition of plein air is “a piece started on location and completed without the use of photographic or other aid.” So you could finish the painting later in the studio but only by relying on your memory.
Types Of Plein Air Painting
There are a few reasons to paint on location.
To Complete A Painting
This first group of paintings show one of the reasons to paint on location and that is to complete the painting almost entirely on site and try to capture the mood, or feel of the subject. Robsart is a ghost town in Saskatchewan. We happen on it a few years ago when we took the scenic route from Gull Lake to Maple Creek. This year we purposely went to visit it again. A very interesting place and this painting really captured the feel of the day.
Sunbathing At Griffith Woods was my 4th attempt at this subject in 3 weeks and I was finally happy with the way I captured the feel of all those trees. Just by luck 2 girls were sunbathing. It made the painting have a much more interesting story.
Swimming In The Elbow, also painted at Griffith Woods, was a lot of fun. I saw all these kids swimming and floating down the river and I was very excited to do a grouping of figures as the main subject. It definitely captured the feel of that very hot and sunny day.
To Collect Reference Material
Another reason for plein air painting is to just collect information and reference material. That was the case in this winter painting done in my van. It was an overcast day but the darks at the bottom of the Calgary Tower parking lot added nice value contrast and made this otherwise dull scene interesting. The figures were by and large invented. I wanted to say something about this corner because it contains both The Inn From The Cold and The Mustard Seed, 2 agencies that help homeless and at-risk people. I find that it has a nice looseness and unity.
I used this painting as reference for a larger studio version.
To Have Fun Or To Try Something New
This painting was done at the Tourist Information/Rest Stop at the Manitoba Saskatchewan border. It was done just for the fun of sitting in the sun after a long drive through the night. In this one I learned a way to capture that soft early light on a white truck. The subtle glow on the side of the truck is my favourite part.
This painting was interesting to do because I did it as a demo at the Clothesline Sale at the Leighton Centre. It was all about the challenge of finding an interesting story using the big tents as a background. Just by luck those 2 girls stood talking like this for almost 10 minutes. I drew out it out completely on location and I completed the 2 main figures. All the rest I did at home but without any photographic aid. The challenge was to capture a sense of all the detail in the tents without it being distracting. A lot of learning from this one.
Why This All Matters
What I now realize as a result of all my years of plein air painting is that I have to do this kind of painting if I want to be excited by my painting and if I want to be challenged and grow as an artist. Whether plein air paintings turn into a studio piece or not doesn’t matter at all. It doesn’t even matter if it works out. It can be a poor painting but a great experience. The only way to do it wrong is not to do it.
CSPWC Annual Symposium
As a final note I want to say how excited I am to be teaching at the CSPWC Symposium in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia next month. I teaching 2 workshops: Figures In The Urban Landscape, and Figures In Action. Some of the lessons learned in these plein air paintings will be revisited in the symposium.