What I’ve come to realize is that plein air is not about painting the perfect painting.
It’s not even about painting.
Yea – Hear me out.
What is Plein Air Painting?
Just a fancy way of saying “painting outdoors.” The term is borrowed from the 19th century movement of French artists who started painting outside to observe the effects of light and capture them with paint.
Why is Plein Air Painting Useful?
Compared to sitting in front of a reference photo and translating what you see to the canvas, painting from life is extremely challenging. In a photo, the information has already been distilled to a 2D form (picture). Outside, everything is 3D, therefore you must develop a sensitivity to scale, perspective, color, light, and so much more in order to translate that 3D to 2D.
Add to that the changing light of the landscape, wind, possibly rain, and you’ve got a real challenge!
Learning How to See
When I said “plein air is not even about painting,” this is what I mean. Plein air is more about seeing than painting. Developing the skill to truly SEE what is in front of you – and then developing the skill to make your hand paint it onto a 2D surface…well these are very different things. If we speak of realism, you cannot paint what you cannot see.
So how does one develop these skills?
Just start by going out to your own garden. Or sit on a park bench. Choose one single subject – a flower. A tree. Heck, even some clovers in the grass.
Start sketching. Sketch as often as you can from life. The “simple” act of sketching begins the journey of translating 3D to 2D.
It’s difficult. But not as difficult as painting with color. So don’t add that pressure – yet.
After you get lots of sketches down, you’ll start to develop ways of “measuring” form, scale, perspective within your mind, and making your hand do the thing. It’s a lot of subtle motor skills and it takes time. So don’t feel bad if you’ve only just started. A year from now you will be so happy you did.
I remember a quote I heard somewhere..
Start. Then get good.– Someone
It’s so simple right? You can’t escape this simple step and it reminds me that I need to DO something instead of just think about it a lot.
Dealing with color en plein air
So, you’ve sketched a lot, and you’re itching to use color. I get it! Color is super fun. But let me warn (no..not warn, that sounds too harsh).
Let me advise you that translating color from life to the paper is the single most difficult thing about plein air.
By starting with sketches, you’ve grown an understanding and ability to translate the form onto the paper. The first time you go outside with color (let’s say a set of watercolors for instance), you will probably start mixing a green to paint some grass or leaves. But..pause for a moment. Look at those leaves closely. Very often leaves are not just green. Depending on what angle the leaf is, and whether the sun is coming through the leaf or shining down from above will completely change it’s perceived color. Yes, we know that technically the leaf is green. But, light changes everything. The color of the sky may reflect off the top of the leaf. Nearby plants might cast blue, brown, orange colors onto the leaves.
So – you start to realize that the more you look at things, the more you notice things. You begin to develop a sensitivity to color. To how light effects an object in different situations.
All of this knowledge is pure gold.
When you take this knowledge back to the studio, you can use this even when painting from a reference photo. Because photos don’t have the ability to capture true color and light. So your first-hand knowledge becomes so important for painting a scene more authentically.
I struggle a lot with seeing color, and if I don’t go outside to paint often, I feel like I get rusty. So I have many plein air sessions that feel like total failures. But I’m always reminding myself that it’s a slow game. You can’t rush it.
So I try to soak up the beauty of the location as much as possible. Someday I will look back at my “early years” as an artist and smile.