No matter what your line of work, there are phrases that are so commonly used that you forget that maybe other people are not as familiar. Painting “En Plein Air” just means painting outside. It has become increasingly popular of late but was also made very popular by earlier artists in the late 19th century. The French Impressionists were among those who favored painting en plein air. Before that paint was made in the studio before painting. While some of the early plein air painters did mix their own paint and packed it to bring with them it was really when paint was put in tubes that made the difference.
All that being the case, I have been working at my plein air painting almost from the beginning. I keep trying to refine my style and my gear. As with any painting I start hearing voices in my head when I work – the voices of every instruction I’ve ever learned, with many contradictions thrown in for good measure. Too much color, not enough “pure color”, too much detail, not enough detail, so, short of screaming back I just keeping working at trying to make good pictures, everyone agrees that’s the idea.
Now, lets add in the elements, yea, those elements, earth, wind and fire. There is the romantic ideal, painting the beauty of nature on a glorious day, and then there is the reality. Even on the best days, nature happens. Let’s start with wind, there’s the nice cooling breeze that keeps you comfortable and there’s the wind that knocks you’re painting to the ground, giving it that nice textured look with the dirt mixed into the paint. A real authenticity to your earth colors. Of course, with the proper set-up, you’re painting will be secure, but the wind will still be a factor. Those lovely clouds you’re trying to capture, well they are floating along in that breeze. Either paint quickly to get them as they are, or you kind of “wing” it.
Those floating clouds also tend to change the light even more quickly than the sun as works it’s way around you. Again, you must decide, where is the sun coming from in your painting, because it’s not going to be in the same place when you’re finished. I was told to bring a compass, so you can anticipate where it will be. I have a compass tied to my backpack, but I’ve never used it. It looks good though. I’m not sure I could really use it properly anyhow. The fire element can also be the sun burn too. Sun screen is also in my backpack, along with my ipod, paper towels, paints, brushes, palette knives, mineral spirits, business cards, phone, garbage bags, foot warmers (for winter months), a sketchbook and bug spray. Bugs are a special favorite, between the bite and the landing in the wet paint on your canvas, I’m not sure which is more irritating.
Having a backpack leaves my hands free to carry my French box, which is not light. It goes from being a wooden box the size of a brief case, to unfold into an easel and palette on legs. Of course I also have my lunch box (no not the old school kind with Bugs Bunny or GI Joe on the side) but an insulated bag with a shoulder strap. My camera is also hanging around my neck. I do ok, lugging my gear around, it’s good exercise. But once again there’s a catch, what do you do with the wet painting when you’re finished. The French box has a carrying mechanism when it’s closed up, but it’s not a very snug fit and brushing up against anything could be a disaster.
With each of my outings I learn a little more. There is one practice I have now abandoned though. That would be putting the finished painting on the hood of the car as I pack the rest of my gear back into the back of it. It always seemed like a good idea. Get the gear in there and then much more carefully put the painting in, in a way that it is protected. The only problem is the fatigue factor. Usually by the time I’ve hauled gear to a site, set up, painted a few hours and made my way back to the car, I’m tired, and forgetful. Like the time leaving the Arnold Arboretum this Spring. It was beautiful day, with the flowering trees and new grass. My routine however failed me as I headed up the on ramp to leave Boston and I watched my painting fly off the hood of my car. It wasn’t a very good painting anyway, the tire treads didn’t help either.