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Why Not Just Take A Picture? Why Bother With Plein Air?

By all means, take a picture with your camera!

With today’s technology, we are taking photos every day, and some of them are really good. But why isn’t that enough for the plein air painter? Why not just paint from the photograph? I’ll try to answer that.

First of all, even the best cameras don’t pick up the values and colors exactly right. That’s why every good photographer is an artist, both with their composition of the scene and with their use of photo-editing software afterwards. But certainly we can do many of the things in the studio that we do en plein air, can’t we? Like re-composing, and leaving certain things out, or moving a tree a smidge to the left in order to provide contrast behind the focal area? Well yes, except that we are working with changing light, so we also have to make a lot of decisions on the spot, and try to mix colors right the first time.

But here’s a big difference. Imagine yourself driving down the highway, seeing some pretty scenery, and stopping to take a picture. Years later, or even days later, maybe even hours later, you are looking back at your photos, and you wonder what it was that made you snap that photo, what it was that caught your eye, why it was significant, why it impressed you enough to stop the car.

Now instead imagine yourself somewhere away from home, enjoying the sunset, shooting a photo now and then as the sunset progresses, listening to the soft rush of the waves coming in to the shore, and the call of seagulls and banter of children playing, with the smell of someone’s barbecue wafting over your beach chair, knowing your friends are up in the vacation house having drinks and telling stories. The sand is gritty between your toes, there is a pesky fly that wants to bite you, and the bottoms of your pant legs are sticking to your skin from getting wet because you walked out to return to the sea a flipping baitfish that had stranded itself on the sand. The key element here is the time it takes to absorb all of those sensations, so that depending on your present-moment awareness, a unique memory can be imprinted, so rich that years from now you might recall the scent of barbecue and the feel of the ocean breeze on your skin and the pleasure of rejoining your friends afterwards, when you look at the one or two photos of that sunset that you decided to keep.

In much the same way, a plein air painter experiences their environment for an extended period of time while painting, and that is the reason not to just settle for a photo. The time invested in the experience allows for the absorption of volumes of sensory information, some of which inevitably will make its way into the painting, whether intentionally or not. If you’ve ever marveled at the difference between seeing a good photo of a painting, and seeing the same painting in person, you know exactly what I am talking about. The painting itself contains an energy that came from the experience of the artist. I remember that tears came to my eyes, I was so overwhelmed when I saw “Starry Night” in person, even though I had stared at photos of the painting many times. It’s like the difference between reading Maya Angelou’s poetry, or listening to Maya Angelou herself reading it to you. She lived it.

It’s interesting when someone compliments an artist by saying a painting looks like a photograph. If it is a photograph of the painting, that might be an apt compliment indeed. But if they see the painting in person, hopefully they will feel the solid mass of rock underfoot and hear the call of the loon in the distance, and her mate answering, and they will know that a photograph could never give the same sense that the painting does. Well, except of course when it is a photograph by a really good photographer – I feel the crunch of the glacier moving and I sense a coyote looking at me, when I look at Ansel Adams’ photos.

So last week I painted through a rainstorm. To be honest, when it started to sprinkle and I went to the car to get my big, wide, painting umbrella, the weather App on my phone said the rain was going to diminish after a bit, not get worse, and by the time I finally figured out that the App was wrong, all of my gear was soaked, and I found myself wondering, why don’t I just take a picture? Thankfully, Florida’s summer rains are not too chilly, because the umbrella only shielded me from most of the rain. I posted a video of the misadventure on my personal Facebook page, 6/13/18, gum-chomping and all..

Here’s the end result, “After The Downpour” – sorry you have to view it as a photo. Even so, I will guarantee you that I would not have gotten this effect if I had just shot a photo and then painted it in the studio. Interestingly, even as I am writing this, my friend Janice Frossard just commented on Facebook about the painting that I blogged about yesterday, Devil’s Backbone First Light: “You can almost smell the sage brush and feel the cool morning air.” That’s what I’m talking about!

In this painting, can you smell the rain?

Oil painting of the patio behind the Bay Restaurant in Santa Rosa Beach, FL, after a torrential downpour
After the Downpour, 11×14 oils on canvas panel, en plein air

 

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From Plein Air Studies to Studio Painting

Last week I completed a painting of the early morning light on part of the hogback [rock formation running along the front range of the Colorado Rockies] at Devil’s Backbone Open Space at Loveland, Colorado, a Larimer County Natural Resources Park. I blogged about painting en plein air there 6 weeks ago, “A Quick Trip to Colorado, Paints in Hand“.

I am a believer in painting only what you experience. There is the occasional commissioned painting of someone’s scene from their own photo, or their dog or child, but I feel more strongly about the scene if I actually was there and I think that I make a better painting when I have a memory or feelings about the scene.

This certainly was true with Devil’s Backbone First Light. I blogged about looking one whole morning for the part of the hogback formation that I had remembered from my childhood, and about going the next day to Loveland to another part of the hogback with my sister and brother-in-law to hike, and then hiking it myself with my paints the following day while the sun was coming up, painting all morning, and hiking the trails again that afternoon with both sisters and their husbands and a couple of the grandkids. I was filled with powerful memories of the scene, made more significant by spending time with family there, and I had my 3 plein air studies, and my iPhotos. Only my memory held the actual lighting I wanted to portray — the photos were much less colorful than I remembered or than my plein air paintings indicated, but they provided better value comparisons and better perspective. My plein air works provided truer color, and the time spent painting en plein air imprinted certain details on my memory. If I had merely photographed the rocks, and not painted en plein air, I would not have remembered the yellow-green of the lichen and the pinks and lavenders of the sagebrush, and the tufts of grass growing between the rocks on top of the hogback.

I was thrilled to realize just how much the process had helped to make the painting. Below is Devil’s Backbone First Light, followed by the three studies I painted en plein air.

Oil painting of first light on Devil's Backbone, Laramie County, Loveland, Colorado
Devil’s Backbone First Light, 10 x20 oils on stretched canvas (click on image for purchase info)
Oil painting (study) at Devil's Backbone Open Space, Larimer County, Colorado
6×8 study, Devil’s Backbone, Loveland, CO
Oil painting (study) at Devil's Backbone Open Space, Larimer County, Colorado
4×6 study, Devil’s Backbone, Loveland, CO
Oil painting (study) at Devil's Backbone Open Space, Larimer County, Colorado
4×6 study, Devil’s Backbone, Loveland, CO

 

 

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The Forgotten Coast en Plein Air and Plein Air South 2018

I attended the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air and Plein Air South again this May, taking time out for painting between demo’s and discussions. I practice painting en plein air to study the transient effects of light, to become more adept at composing, to learn more effective technique, and to develop a stronger instinct for decision-making. Many times a plein air painting will be worthy of framing. All are learning experiences. My intention is to study something different every time I paint, even when I paint a scene I have painted before. Every painting is making it easier to paint the next painting, but I challenge myself even more the next time, so I can’t say that painting is easy. I can say that I am seeing better.

Oil painting of the marsh from the deck of Scallop Republic on the way to Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe, FL
Scallop Republic Marsh

I am happy to report that my Quickdraw painting, Scallop Republic Marsh, was selected by Quickdraw judge Lori Putnam to be one of the 40 on display throughout the Forgotten Coast event, and that it was purchased, as was Eastpoint Oyster Shack, one of my paintings in the Florida’s Finest en Plein Air Ambassador exhibit.

The more exciting news happened the week following the Forgotten Coast event, which was Plein Air South, a convention in the same location with back-to-back educational sessions, lectures, and demonstrations. Approximately 160 artists attended. We were invited to display up to 3 plein air paintings, the best to be selected by artists’ vote. I thought they were just going to award a Best in Show, but they also awarded second place, which one of my paintings won, Spring Dune at St. George Island, pictured below! I received $485 of paintbrushes from Rosemary & Co., my favorite brush manufacturer! (Iin addition to the $180 of brushes I had just purchased!) I don’t guess I will run out of brushes for a while!!

Oil painting of the massive primary dune at St. George Island State Park, FL

Below are the studies I painted over the two weeks, in between listening to the speakers and watching the demo’s. Click any photo to learn purchase information.

Oil painting of the marsh at the kayak and canoe launch on Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe, FL
Kayak Launch at Cape San Blas, oils, 6×12

 

Oil painting of the early morning shadow of the primary dune on Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe, FL
Cape San Blas Morning Shadows, oils, 11×14

 

Oil painting of the shape of the primary dune on Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe, FL, painted with palette knife
Early Summer Dune at Cape San Blas

 

Oil painting of site of oyster shell bagging by the Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast, for maintaining and restoring eroding coastline
Project Worksite, Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast, Oyster Shell Bagging, oils, 6×12

 

Oil painting of the light on the creek at George Core Park, Miss Zola Drive, Port St. Joe, FL
Creek at George Core Park, Miss Zola Drive, Port St. Joe, oils, 12×9

 

Oil painting of the early light at the St. Vincent Shuttle stop, off the tip of Indian Pass, Port St. Joe, FL
Warm in the Morning, Indian Pass, oils, 8×10

 

Oil painting of the artist's impression of the colorful sunrise at the tip of Indian Pass, Port St. Joe, FL
Sunrise Impression, oils, 4×6

 

Oil painting of artist's impression and memories of the marsh at the canoe and kayak launch on Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe, FL
Impression of the Marsh at Cape San Blas Canoe Launch, oils, 11×14

 

Unfinished, Rick on a Break, 14 x 11

 

Unfinished, Cape San Blas Light in Port St. Joe, 16×20

 

Joan Vienot, painting the Cape San Blas Light and lightkeepers’ cottages in Port St. Joe, hurrying to beat the rain!