An Outdoor Opportunity

Want to become a better painter in the shortest amount of time possible? Consider the challenge—and the opportunity—of plein air painting.

The Shimmering Sea (watercolor, 14 x 10)

Plein air painting holds the promise of a hefty dose of personal growth, but the best news is that it?s the quickest and most direct route to improving your painting. Plein air painting, you see, is more than simply moving the work outdoors. First and foremost, it is painting from life—the greatest teacher an artist could ask for. Unlike most workshops you can sign up for or books you can read, plein air painting doesn?t teach you technique or formulas. Instead, it teaches you how to see. The physical act of painting is secondary in importance to the insight and understanding you gain when you directly observe a subject.

Seeing the Light
Learning to paint on location really means learning how to see light. If you can paint light, you can paint everything under the sun! If you want to maximize the learning curve, then there is no substitute for direct observation—for seeing the real thing.

When you?re working against a rapidly changing light, the imperative is to just get it down, any way you can. The greatest barrier is not the lack of painting technique, but rather the inability to clearly see and organize the subject. If you could somehow remove the confusion generated by the lack of understanding in the observation stages of a painting, you would be amazed at how simple and direct the painting process could be! To put it another way, it?s easy to paint with flair when a brushstroke is based on a substantive observation. Improved technique follows greater visual understanding like a dog on a leash. When you?re focused correctly, your painting technique will seem to improve almost by itself.

Danza Folklorica (watercolor, 15 x 9)

Photos Will Slow Your Progress
On the other hand, learning to paint using photographic references is a much longer and slower process. Photography doesn?t capture the subtlety of information available to the human eye. When you can see light, you can extrapolate your way through the many inadequacies contained in even the best slides or photographs. When you get to this point, photography can become a more useful tool, but it can never replace a direct experience.

A Slice of Life
Painting from life is the moment of truth. Capturing a particular moment in time is the landscape painter?s art. The goal is not to paint afternoon light, but this afternoon?s light. This may sound like an arcane point, but it?s really not. It?s the difference between aiming at the middle of the bulls—eye, or just aiming at the target itself. Light is different each day. It?s different from summer to winter, and it?s different from day to day. (Just check out two consecutive sunsets.) Light is always changing, always new.

For the painter, the challenge is to state the color and value relationships of the various elements accurately. Accurate relationships are what give a painting presence, a feeling of light and air. Painting light is a bigger picture than painting trees and water. It?s an expanded awareness, a turning point on the artistic journey.

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and chair of ASTM International?s subcommittee on artists? materials.

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