8 Plein Air Painters Share Their Processes | Part 1

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These artists have become masters at painting en plein air. Here’s how they approach their locations and subjects.

Tres Pistoles by Barbara Coleman

By Norman Kolpas

Artists have painted in the open air probably for as long as humans have dipped fingers, sticks, or brushes in pigment and drawn images on rock walls, hides, paper, or canvas. Plein air painting as a movement, however, is likely little more than two centuries old. It was made possible as oil paints became available in convenient portable tubes at the same time that the French Impressionists rose to prominence in the 19th century. Over the past several decades, plein air painters have enjoyed a vibrant new heyday across the nation. The technique has been championed by local, state, regional, and national societies and enthusiastically supported by museums, galleries, magazines, and collectors.

The movement continues to thrive today, as evidenced by the eight successful plein air painters featured in this three-part series. In Part 1 below, you’ll get to know Barbara Coleman, Carolyn Lindsey, and Judd Mercer, whose plein air painting style they describe as loose, with subtle colors. In Part 2, you’ll meet Mary Lois Brown, Sandhya Sharma, and Sara Jane Reynolds, whose plein air work is impressionistic and full of color. And in Part 3, you’ll learn about Nancy Silvia and Madina Croce, two plein air artists who consider themselves a closet realist and an open conduit, respectively.

These artists regularly pack up their equipment and head outside to capture the glories of the world around them. Enjoy the plein air painting inspiration!

Barbara Coleman

Barbara Coleman painting on location.

Out and About

From her home and studio in the beautiful old tree-lined Huning Castle neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Barbara Coleman often takes a five-minute stroll down to the cottonwood-lined banks of the Rio Grande to paint in the open air. Other times, she may be out and about with (but safely socially distanced from) her painting buddies. Many of them are fellow members of the Plein Air Painters of New Mexico, capturing scenes ranging from nearby fields and orchards to the Sandia Mountains or the beautiful white cliffs in San Ysidro.

The Approach by Barbara Coleman

Or she could be painting contentedly on her own. This past October she did just that during a two-week artist’s residency amidst the landscape Georgia O’Keeffe immortalized in and around her Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Pond Up North by Barbara Coleman

Aesthetic Order

Regardless of her chosen location and subject, “I’m looking for beautiful patterns of light shapes and dark shapes,” says Coleman. She goes on to explain her loose, painterly style. “How the intense light-and-shadow pattern resolves into a mountain or a tree comes later” in the process. That approach to finding aesthetic order in the natural world makes sense for someone who earned a master’s degree in community and regional planning from the University of New Mexico, then taught urban design there as well as working as an urban designer and planner for the City of Albuquerque. Meanwhile Coleman, who studied art in France, continued to paint. She has won awards from pastel societies before switching her focus to oils.

Cliff Faces by Barbara Coleman

Finding Patterns

The powerful results Coleman achieves through her pattern-oriented approach can be seen in her recent Cliff Faces, a scene painted down the road from Ghost Ranch one morning. “What really intrigued me was how much color and reflected light there was in those sunlit faces. I tried to adjust the reflected light in the shadows to make the painting express my emotional experience as authentically as I could.”

To learn more, visit barbaracoleman.com.

Carolyn Lindsey

Mammoth by Carolyn Lindsey

Home on the Ranch

“I’ve always gone outside to paint, because I’ve lived out in the country,” says Carolyn Lindsey. She recalls times back on the ranch in her native Texas when “my husband would drop me off to go take care of the cattle, and I’d just paint cows and trees without the end of a painting in sight.” In those days, her more deliberately executed works were mostly figurative studio pieces, painted from a combination of life studies and photo references. Lindsey holds an MFA in painting from Texas Women’s University and has taught art in public school and community college.

Carolyn Lindsey at work on location.

A Change of Pace

Four years ago, after moving from Texas to the red mesas of Cuervo, New Mexico, about 100 miles southeast of Santa Fe, Lindsey “wanted to do something different,” she says. “I love going new places and seeing different things, so plein-air painting seemed like a natural progression.”

She developed what she describes as “a loose style, representational but not realistic. I’m very much intrigued by the basic design and subtle colorations of what I’m painting.”

Morning Chill by Carolyn Lindsey

By way of example, she points to Morning Chill, which she painted one very cold, snowy morning during a visit to Moab, Utah. “It was slightly overcast, and the sun was coming up and creeping through the clouds, and everything was so still. I wanted to convey that feeling,” she says — which she did in boldly brushed shades of gray, purple, and rose.

January by Carolyn Lindsey
First Hint of Color by Carolyn Lindsey

Getting Spontaneous

Lindsey finds great satisfaction in her new plein-air efforts. “There’s a spontaneity to it.” She notes there are so many factors of the compositional challenges. “The wind and the sun and the temperature. And the fact that you have to design the landscape because it’s never perfect. You have to move things around. If you’re honest, the ratio of success to failure is pretty slim. But when it does succeed beautifully, your painting is a little gem and should be treated like one.”

To learn more, visit carolynlindsey.com.

Judd Mercer

Judd Mercer surveying the landscape.

A Perfect Escape

For Judd Mercer, plein-air painting provides a perfect escape from his day job staring at a computer screen as a graphic designer in downtown Denver. Whenever he can, he’ll head into the Rockies. Or he’ll go further afield to favorite scenic spots like Canyonlands National Park in Utah or Laguna Beach, California. He’ll even explore unlikely spots closer to home. When time is short, he may find beauty “no one would ever see” in the geometry of factories or in a spillway beneath a highway overpass. “I do a lot of exploring in industrial scenes. You abstract it enough that, if you do it right, the smoke from a factory can become just as interesting as the fog on the beach.”

The setting for Judd Mercer’s painting Socked In.

Going Gouache

He chooses to work in gouache for his plein-air work, which provides him with “the best possible balance between all of the mediums.” It can be applied thickly for opaque effects or in thin, transparent washes. When he goes out painting, he says, “I travel super-light with a backpack. I have a tiny little case with paint, a collapsible water cup, and pencils, and I cut the handles of my brushes in half so they fit. I don’t use an easel, painting on my lap on illustration board or a heavy paper sketchbook.”

A page from Judd Mercer’s sketchbook.
Balls of Sunshine by Judd Mercer

Practice Makes Proficient

Often on his excursions, Mercer will use masking tape to form a grid of two or four small, equal rectangles on one sheet of paper or board. Then he’ll set a timer for an hour and challenge himself to execute multiple paintings in one outdoor session; this practice helps to improve his proficiency for larger studio oil paintings. “For me,” he says, “plein-air painting is about training, not finished pieces, although people like to buy them. They like the spontaneity and the looseness. The built-in time limit forces you to make decisions. It’s all about setting an intention and capturing as much as you can in that moment.”

To learn more, visit juddmercer.art.

Head over to Part 2 of this series, where you’ll learn about Mary Lois Brown, Sandhya Sharma, and Sara Jane Reynolds, whose plein air work is impressionistic and full of color.

All 8 plein air painters as they appear in this series:

Kolpas is a Los Angeles-based freelancer who writes for Mountain Living and Colorado Homes & Lifestyles as well as Southwest Art. For more inspiring artist profiles, get your subscription to Southwest Art here.

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