Plein Air 101

Roscoe and me at Prince Edward island

I find plein air painting exhilarating. Exploring until I find the right painting spot, figuring out a composition, slowing down enough to closely study nature's colors and shapes, feeling the cool breeze and warm sun--there's so much pleasure in the experience of painting outdoors.

Plein air is also very challenging, both physically--hiking with heavy gear in circles to find the right painting spot, feeling the cold wind and baking sun--and also mentally difficult. As we stand at our easel looking at the landscape, how do we pick and choose what to paint from all the possibilities before us, and not get lost in countless details? 

From my time at art school in Baltimore when I first started using a french easel with my professor Israel Hershberg, to the landscape workshops I now teach in Provence, the Bahamas and Vermont, these plein air pleasures and challenges have held true.

Here is some of what I've learned from my time painting outdoors:

Susan Abbott, "Fields at Dusk, Provence", watercolor

Never start a painting feeling bored

Learn to trust your feelings, and don't second-guess that first impression that makes you say, "Wow, that's beautiful!" Conventional beauty is not necessary in a motif, and it's also not necessarily desirable. Sometimes the most ordinary things are inspiring. You may find yourself moved by the light on top of a trash can in a Baltimore alley, or by the light on a roof in the Bahamas.  Just be sure that you feel "I need to paint that!"

Follow your feelings

Look for something that grabs your emotions when you are trying to figure out what to paint. What moves your feelings when you are looking at the landscape could be very abstract: the shape of a shadow, the color of a door, the relationship of the sky to the horizon, or maybe an emotion prompted by the light or weather or time of day that you can't put into words. Fortunately for us, painting is a wordless art...

"Cape on Back Street, Hope Town", 16" x 16", oil on linen panel

Paint "motifs" rather than "subjects"

A "subject" is a thing: a lighthouse, a barn, a field, a mountain. A "motif" is a subject viewed through a visual lens. A "subject" is left-brained and literal, a "motif" is right-brained and abstract.

For example, many folks go to Maine to paint its most common subjects: light houses, rocky shores and seagulls.  Edward Hopper was also attracted to these Maine subjects. What sets his work apart from the usual renditions of the Maine coast? I'd say that Hopper's work is distinguished by the strength and originality of his compositions.

Lighthouse and seagull, two typical Maine photo and painting subjects.

Lighthouse and seagull, two typical Maine photo and painting subjects.

Edward Hopper, "Light at Two Lights", watercolor

We know that Hopper took his time finding something to paint outdoors. Summer cottages may have abounded along the coast, but Hopper needed to drive and walk and look until he found a cottage that presented a strong abstract composition. He was looking for a compelling individual motif, not a generic subject.

Edward Hopper, "Amon Carter House", watercolor

In Hopper's watercolor above, the intense red of the roof, the dark shapes of the house contrasting with the light of sky and grass, the squares and rectangles of windows, and the cast shadow of the chimney all combine into a strong abstract design. The subject of the cottage is part of a larger visual idea, a motif of color and shape.

Narrow your focus

Susan Abbott, "Hope Town Sunrise", watercolor

Decide what you are interested in painting--the first visual idea that grabbed you--and cut out anything that doesn't support that original impulse.

For example, are you most interested in the dramatic clouds that are swirling in over the ocean? Then lower the horizon line in your painting, leave out the beach chairs, just show enough of the water to set the scene at the ocean, and focus on the sky.


Eliminate side shows

The photo below is a subject--a road, barn and trees--that I see every day driving up my hill. What attracted me to paint this subject was the road and tree's light and shadow shapes. As I stood at my easel looking down the road, I edited out the areas to the right and left, and narrowed my focus to the arching tree and the cast shadows.

Susan Abbott, "Hollister Hill, Late Shadows", oil

Edit down to one painting

Often times a subject will present us with many possible motifs, any of which could make strong paintings. I've found that sometimes it feels easier to jam two or three paintings onto one canvas, rather than do the hard mental work of eliminating extraneous objects and details. Halfway through, I always regret that impulse to add rather than subtract.

A strong and tight composition requires ruthless editing. "More" is not necessarily "better", in painting as well as some other aspects of life.

Abbott, "High Noon, Dockside", oil

In the next "Painting Notes", I'll offer some more thoughts on plein air painting.  

For now, let's give Paul Cezanne, the master of "sur le motif", the last word:

"I think my mind becomes clearer when I am in the presence of nature. Unfortunately, the realization of my sensations is always a very painful process for me. I can't seem to express the intensity that beats in upon my senses. I haven't at my command the magnificent richness of color that enlivens nature...look at that cloud, I should like to be able to paint that!...Painting certainly means more to me than anything else in the world..." 

Your comments are welcome below! Feel free to leave your name and website address. (Reformatting on older comments resulted in all the names being lost, sorry about that! New comments will post with your name.)