Painting en Plein Air

The exhilaration of plein air painting is never greater than when working in a volatile climate. This is my experience of painting on the northern California coast. When all hell can break loose at any moment, the painting process takes on added urgency, producing work that’s highly expressive—a look that’s hard to duplicate in the studio. Sonoma is a good example of the energy created under harsh plein air conditions.

Working from life isn’t technique-oriented. It’s driven by a different impulse. It’s about having a direct link between the eye and the hand, bypassing the part of the intellect that’s used to reconstruct reality when working from photography. Instead, I paint what I see—and that’s changing by the moment. The imperative is just to get it down. Heavy thinking occurs only when I get in trouble. On a good day in the field the painting just flows.

The essence of plein air painting is an intuitive and spontaneous response to each individual subject. This is your birthright as an artist. Don’t give it away by adopting predetermined and dubious solutions to problems not yet encountered. Another way to put it is that nature can’t teach you what you already think you know. Be an empty vessel; the lessons will flow naturally.

Zora Pinney is an artist, conservator and consultant in Los Angeles.

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