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To Plein Air, or Not to Plein Air

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

That is the question.

Let's face it, painting en plein air, or outdoors on location, is hard - bloody hard, in fact. So why bother?

Well, while there are challenges to plein air painting, there are so many benefits. So first, let's discuss the challenges.

The elements. Yep, you gotta deal with those. I've had fingers nearly frozen into ice blocks (which makes it a bit hard to hold a brush). I've baked under hot sun where the paint isn't the only thing that's melting. I've had oil paintings that have fallen face first into sand/dirt/grass. I've had rogue waves that literally cover me from head to toe and swamp my watercolour paper in sea water. Oh, and let's not forget the flies, mosquitoes, midges, and people! It's a wild world out there, and a plein air artist has to deal with whatever may come their way.

Another challenge is the light. It changes! How dare the sun rise and move my shadows. They were perfectly fine where they were an hour ago. And now the wind has picked up, where are my lovely reflections? A plein airist needs to decide on their vision and stick with it. No working slavishly for hours from a photograph. Assess the scene and get it down. Now!

The other challenge is composition. There's so much out there! How do I condense all that gorgeousness out there on to my little A4 canvas? I really like that tree there, but gosh, that power poll is totally in the wrong place. Council? Could you move it please?

And on top of all that, is confidence. You have to be brave to put yourself out there, in front of God and everyone, and paint. There's no studio door to hide behind. You're exposed, with your brand new pochade box that's never been used, and that's intimidating.

So, like I said, why bother?

Because, despite all that, it's one of the most enjoyable things you can do on the planet.

When I go on holiday, I ALWAYS take my paint things. There's nothing I enjoy more than sitting on a beach in Rarotonga, my daughters playing in the sand, while I tinker away at the beauty that's before me. When you paint on location, you are experiencing the location more than anyone else. You are observing on a whole different level. You're not just piling out of a bus with a gaggle of other tourists, taking a few selfies with your selfie stick before climbing back on the bus and buggering off. You are engaging with the scene, reacting emotionally to it, and translating that into art. We are writing poems with our brushes. And I can think of no better way to appreciate our world than that.

Now, my plein air results are usually sub par to my studio work, but I have noticed that my studio work greatly improves. My understanding of light, knowing that the shadows in my reference photo are nowhere near as dark as in real life. But occasionally, one of my plein air pieces just sings. Something magical happens and I am able to translate that spontaneity and impression in just the right way as to make a painting I could never have done in the studio. There's a freshness to it that comes from not being overworked, but loved into being. I understood this more when I exhibited a few watercolours, a couple of which were technically really good (if I do say so myself), and one plein air piece. I was sure my technical paintings would win accolades and be sold off in a heartbeat, but no, it was the simple yet evocative plein air piece that won (and ultimately sold) on the day.

The other benefit is...friendship. Painting with friends is fun. That shared love of art and the great 'artdoors' is good for the soul. We share our joys, we share our frustrations. We share biscuits and hot coffee from a thermos. And we share paint when we've left the bloody stuff at home! It's a great way to enjoy a sense of community and belonging, that brings us all closer together. And what better way to overcome the fear of painting 'a la exposed' than with a few supportive mates. You give it a go, and have a good old laugh if it all goes pear shaped.

So, for me, the answer to the question is to plein air - definitely plein air.

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