Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What Is Plein Air?

A good friend of mine on WetCanvas just asked me something in a note that gave me a good topic. A good free online course on Plein Air painting by Larry Seiler just started. I wasn't able to attend because I have conflicting commitments on the evenings he teaches, but my friend's question made me think.

"What do I do when I can't get out to paint plein air?"

First off, "Plein Air" really means "Paint Scenery from Life."

You don't have to get Out in order to do it. You can sit in front of your living room window and look at the scene you see every day, sketch it throughout the seasons or choose parts of it to do a painting. Snow, rain, sun, green or brown, you'll see different things every day following the same window and this does not demand having transportation, mobility or the stamina to bundle up and get out doing snow scenes in subzero weather.

You can even do interior paintings instead of outdoor landscapes and paint from life. That's still scenic, especially if a window's scene is part of the scene. Most contests list "landscapes and interiors" in the same category. So the room you live in can become as interesting as Vincent Van Gogh's little yellow room in Paris when you simplify it and choose the right viewpoint to show perspective and organize the painting. It takes the same skills as doing it outdoors and the light will still change in a few minutes, steadily, all day.

You can look at the scenery on your street instead of driving out to the wilderness. Urban landscapes are still plein air. Or drive out to the wilderness or get a friend to drive you - but then stay in the car painting through the window so you don't freeze and your paint doesn't turn into a solid ice cube.

There are also ways to simulate it for places you can't travel. One of the more interesting ways I've found to practice for plein air sketching is to put a nature video on television or on my computer and try to sketch something from the background of the video while it's running. It's all right to play it a few times over and over to really get in everything you want, but that's a good simulation of dealing with real wildlife. They're moving. So is the camera angle. So is the light.

You're not stopping to exactly copy nature drawing from a video reference. You'll have to average where the branch of the tree is when the wind's moving it around, instead of measuring it from the reference.

You can also ask a friend with a camcorder to go to a good location and take videos for you to paint from. That can help too.

What are the real advantages of plein air? They are the same as painting or drawing anything from life. If you have to rely on photos, it helps a lot to go outdoors and look at similar things. Set up some pebbles on your balcony or patio to look at the real color of their shadows on sand, maybe in a little dish of sand. That will help you compensate for the color and value distortions of photography.

The main point of plein air painting is to get accurate colors and values, a truer look at what you're painting than you'd have if you were painting just from the photo. So don't forget that you do have a memory.

I did the watercolor painting above, that little waterfall, from a reference. I supplemented it from memory though. I could not help remembering details of places with small creek waterfalls that I saw as a little kid on family road trip vacations out West. I remembered waterfalls I saw in my twenties when I couldn't paint but spent hours staring at them trying to remember how they looked. I remembered an artificial one in a conservatory set up to show off various mosses and how natural it looked - how perfect it was compared to the one shaded by trees that I'd seen as a little kid. I remembered all sorts of times when I saw white water in person.

The more I learn to observe from times I'm looking at it in person, even if I don't have any sketching tools in hand and before I was able to render these subjects, the truer my paintings are when they're done in the studio. Plein air painters usually bring home their small works and color studies. It's a comfortable size to paint 8" x 10" or 9" x 12" outdoors and then develop it into a much larger, more detailed studio painting later with the photos taken at the time on the trip.

Remember, you don't have to treat nature as if you were a camera. If there's an interesting little corner where weeds grew up through the concrete, you can just turn the concrete into dirt and leave out the rest of the city. Draw that little weedy bit and you might as well be out on the prairie. Intimate Landscapes are often easy to find in urban and suburban areas, especially when anyone's yard or garden has been neglected.

If you have a balcony or patio, you can get large pots and do deliberate plantings to give yourself something to paint just the way Monet designed his gardens. So what if it's no larger than a two foot wide box? It's still beautiful, still worth painting. Doing something like that at home has the advantage of returning to the spot day after day, season after season, to know it well in all its changes.

The little watercolor I posted with this entry was painted under similar time constraints as if I was painting plein air. It's a copy of a demo painting by Johannes Vloothuis. He edited his video, there were many passages that he cut past repetition of what he'd just done to get to the next bit that needed explaining. Or let paint dry offstage between cuts. So I worked smaller and worked fast to get it all in before the video ended, while I could still look at the broadcast.

Anytime you turn on Animal Planet and paint something in Africa or Australia or the UK or the USA, somewhere you don't live, try to finish a small study before the video ends. That's your best practice for actually painting outdoros under changing conditions. My painting did not turn out as a copy of Johannes Vloothuis's painting, not even a miniature. I changed a lot of things to simplify the scene and make it work.

Surprise, when you're out looking at a real mountain from a car window, it's okay to leave out the telephone poles or leave out that inconvenient ugly tree, or move it to the other side of the road. You're creating a painting, not snapping a photo. While most plein air painters are trying to record the scene for later use as a reference, others create beautiful paintings on the spot that are composed as much as a Hollywood set. The world inside the painting doesn't have to match the world outside. It only needs to be a good painting that pleases you and serves its purpose - and sometimes that's just remembering what color the sun on the trees was and the real value of shadows that turned black in the photo.

It's frustrating, especially if you haven't got a car or have mobility problems, to look at these happy hikers heading out with French Easels to trek over miles of rough terrain and come back with grand paintings of dramatic scenery. But if you can't paint the scene you love, paint the scene you're with...


  1. What a great post, Robert. Your words are very inspiring and so true. Not everyone can go out and do the Plein air thing, and these are all wonderful alternatives. I love your painting, you did a great job!

  2. Thank you! Much appreciated. I'm working on a new article today, so you made me smile commenting on the last one.