Monday, January 4, 2010

The Plein Air Painting Experience

...First, Happy New Year! The usual New Year's resolutions? For me, a big one is: Be more productive! I tend to go through alternate periods of intense involvement with something (painting) and then complete inactivity (although this time I had the surgery as a cover-up), and put off things I don't want to do for as long as possible. I got the book titled The Now Habit for myself for Christmas and have finished reading it. I think it can help me. It's a really good book--for one, I like the idea of immediate and frequent rewards!

I haven't started painting yet, but have a little project I will do soon. Here is something I wrote about plein air painting (as a writing sample/exercise). Hope it's not too long.

The Plein Air Painting Experience

Ask any artist, it’s a rare one who does not like plein air painting. Because, you see, even for a portrait artist who mostly paints people in a studio, or any other kind of artist, plein air painting is truly a great way to better your craft.

Painting en plein air is a French expression which means “in the open air,” and is used to describe the act of painting outdoors. In the 1870s invention of oil paints in small portable tubes enabled artists to take their paintboxes and canvases out in the field and paint directly from nature. The French impressionistic painters such as Monet and Pissarro made popular this form of painting because they valued the effects of natural light, and the exquisite results of what they observed shine in their paintings.

Ever since then, plein air painting has been an important tool for artists to understand nature and improve painting skills. In recent years, it has gained such popularity in the U.S. that plein air painting events are popping up nationwide. I have to say that the Baltimore area is a pretty good place to be when it comes to plein air painting. There are so many competitions and activities when the weather warms, mostly from May to October, that an artist will be exhausted if she tries to go to every one of them.

The biggest event is of course the Plein Air Easton held each July on the Eastern Shore, followed by Paint Annapolis in September, and numerous other painting competitions in Gunpowder Falls State Park, Havre de Grace, Wayne (PA), etc. throughout the summer and early fall. A major organizer of many these activities is Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painter’s Association, a non-profit organization started and staffed by volunteer local artists. Lee Boynton, a veteran artist based in Annapolis, helped found the association and served as its president for a few years. I took his class at Ladew Gardens in April, 2008, and have been hooked on plein air painting ever since.

So, what is with plein air painting that attracts artists like a magnet? What makes them, willingly, lug all the painting accoutrements, hike up mountains, and put up with the heat, the cold, the critters, and the challenge of rapidly changing light just to sketch one small slice of nature on canvas? I can only tell you what I know. It’s exciting! I experience an adrenalin rush when I see, right in front of my eyes, a splendid view that moves me or a fleeting moment in light that I have to capture. Then I swing into action in a frenzy. Or you could say it’s a communion with nature or an entry into the “zone”—the flow state when you’re in intense concentration. And, really, it’s a lot of fun. Plus, it makes you a better painter faster than any other methods—copying from old masters (although necessary too), painting from photos (the worst and especially if you haven’t had extended outdoor painting experience), and painting only in studio. In this sense, nature truly is the greatest teacher.

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