Plein Air: The Exhilarating and Petrifying Act of Making Art Outside

News flash: We can’t always do what we want.

It’s a shock, I know. Most of us would choose to spend the bulk of the day making art, reading about art and talking about art–maybe pausing just a few minutes here and there to eat a snack or refill our coffee mugs. But alas, the interferences we have are truly endless. I’m here to tell you that to be an artist, you don’t have to give up the other parts of your life, as plein air oil painter Julie Gilbert Pollard exemplifies.

In today’s post, Julie explains how to make the most of plein air painting–when it’s possible for you to get outside. Keep reading for her infectious enthusiasm for art, and be inspired! ~Cherie

Plein air painting | Julie Gilbert Pollard, ArtistsNetwork.com

Boone Fork Creek (oil on canvas, 10×8) by Julie Gilbert Pollard

Plein Air For Everyone–For the Intrepid and the Not-So-Much
by Julie Gilbert Pollard

Painting out in the open air is exciting and intimidating, relaxing and frustrating, instructional and confusing, and exhilarating and petrifying.

Yup–all these contradictory elements! To these psychological and intellectual contradictions, add the fact that it can be an extremely equipment-intensive activity. And often plein air painting is simply logistically impossible to pursue due to time, health or other constraints. For today, I would like to address the idea that we can find a spectrum of possibilities for plein air painting that can work beautifully, even for those who aren’t intrepid, hard-core plein air painters!

For numerous reasons, I find it difficult to paint on location as often as I’d like, resulting in the lion’s share of my paintings being studio paintings created from photo references. So when I have the luxury of painting en plein air, it’s such a glorious treat. Following are two examples of my plein air adventures from both ends of the scale: a logistically challenging one and a much more manageable set-up and painting method.

My favorite subject matter is water flowing over rocks, and if I’m extremely lucky, it includes flowers growing on the bank or overhanging the water. Water, rocks and flowers together–wow–that combination makes me an extremely happy painter! Once, many years ago, I manipulated the latter.

Plein air painting | Julie Gilbert Pollard, ArtistsNetwork.com

Anniversary Bouquet (24×20) by Julie Gilbert Pollard
Watch Julie’s painting workshops in oil, watercolor and acrylic here!

Anniversary Bouquet was painted 17 years ago and early in my plein air experience. I had an entire day to myself while on vacation to roam the creak and play–I was ambitious and naive perhaps, but play, I did! Wanting to paint all three of my favorite things together, I placed a bouquet of flowers right in the creek in several different areas to get an effect that pleased me. I finally settled there, plonked my easel with a large canvas in the creek, sat myself on a rock and began to paint. I set up a second day to resume (maybe even a third–I can’t remember exactly now) and added some finishing touches back in the studio, using my reference photos.

In contrast to the above-described adventure, which was a wonderful experience–and also a lot of hard work just getting my easel, paints, etc. set up in a running river!–my next example is quite simplified. I love this method for those occasions when setting up an easel is out of the question or when I need to keep my equipment light and minimal but still want to be able to finish the piece as an oil painting.

Plein air painting | Julie Gilbert Pollard, ArtistsNetwork.com

Crescent Moon Ranch (10×8) by Julie Gilbert Pollard. Tip: Use watercolor, which is a more portable medium than oil, for the block-in when plein air painting.

For Crescent Moon Ranch, I began by doing the block-in with watercolor (instead of oil paint and lean medium) on an archival canvas panel previously coated with an acrylic watercolor ground. The watercolor ground is important to this method because it allows for good adherence of the watercolor rather than the watercolor sitting on the surface of an untreated canvas. I finished the painting with oil in the studio. I did the watercolor step for this particular painting as a workshop demo for which I had set up my easel and all associated paraphernalia. However, I often use the same method (for those times when I can’t set up an easel), sitting on a rock in the middle of the creek, holding the small canvas in one hand and balancing the small watercolor set on a rock next to me. This allows for some precarious positioning to get the scene I want to paint!

Plein air painting | Julie Gilbert Pollard, ArtistsNetwork.com

Me, sitting on a log this time, sketching on an archival canvas board. It would be pretty difficult to do a plein air painting with full accoutrements here!

Now that I have you sitting by the creek, taking in the beauty that surrounds you, immersed in the music of the burbling water, cocooned in your own little world, here are some steps that I think will be helpful:

1. It must first be said that getting caught up in the beauty is necessary for enthusiasm, desire and energy to paint your scene. On the flip side, it can also be detrimental when we’re so blown away with the splendor all around us that it becomes difficult to focus on a composition that’s such a small area compared to the whole of what we see. There’s a lot of scenery from which to choose a compositional square or rectangle. The solution is, in my view, three-fold.

a. Poke around the area, satisfy your curiosity about what’s available and see what you’re most drawn to. Take lots of photos in order to archive the scenery you don’t have time to paint at the moment, reminding yourself that later you’ll have time for the other painting possibilities exploding in your imagination.

b. At some point you have to settle down and select your scene. Use a viewfinder to isolate a composition. I usually use my camera as my view-finder. Commit to that spot and set up your equipment, be it minimal or maximal “stuff.”

c. Settle in and get comfortable. Consciously relax your mind and body. Tension and excitement may work for some but, if you’re like me, you may have a hard time concentrating until you’re able to settle in both physically and mentally.

2. Now we’re ready to paint!

a. Squint your eyes in order to eliminate detail and to identify and simplify the largest, most important shapes in your composition.

b. Though I’m not much of a sketcher, I realize the value of preliminary studies, and there are several different methods I use from time to time. Here’s an easy one! Point with your finger, pencil or brush at your composition and “draw” in the air a contour line around those most important compositional shapes. On a sketch pad, repeat the shapes and hand movement that you “drew” in the air. Next do the same on your canvas to establish your composition, then proceed with whatever painting methods you prefer.

c. You could try my simplified approach described above or more traditional oil painting techniques, which is my preference when I have more time to work and an easel set up with all the usual supplies.

Plein air purists might not find some of my methods to their taste, and that’s OK. I feel that the plein air experience should be joyful rather than intimidating and that it’s for all of us, regardless of whether we have the ability to backpack out to a remote site or just enough time, physical ability or other wherewithal to sit for a while in our own backyard. In fact, my new North Light book, Discover Oil Painting (chapter six, pages 96-100) has a plein air section for which the painting demo was done in my own yard. If painting in the yard isn’t as exciting an experience as you’d like, it still can be a great place to get in some practice with methods and equipment ahead of embarking on your larger, fantastic adventure! ~Julie

 

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