Painting outside brings a great offer of subjects: patterns of clouds in the sky, sunrises and sunsets, swelling and dipping of the ground, trees, rocks, roads, animals, people. The variety is infinite. It might seem that it is enough to choose a view, and just copy it on the canvas. But painting is more than that: it requires a lot of planning. For example, setting the point of interest dead in the middle of the canvas or repeating identical elements make for a boring design. As my friend Elizabeth Austin says, being boring is the highest crime in creative work. After choosing and placing the point of interest, the rest of the elements are arranged to support the composition. Some trees might be added or removes, a path could be altered, a figure sketched in to give scale to the painting. Other things to consider are the unequal proportion of light and dark, the interesting pattern of interlocking shapes, the play of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals, neutral areas to rest the eye, gradations in large and small area, warm against cool, hard and soft edges, color interest, lively brushstrokes. The result is a very personal interpretation of the immediate scene. Painting, like any other creative process, requires unlimited learning, and brings continuous challenges and joy.
Take a quick walk on a crisp morning, wander by the ocean, or stop to admire the sunset. Breath in deeply, let the slight breeze roll over your skin, feel the sun on your face, and let the colors fill your being with light. When you open to these experiences, you feel closer to nature – and closer to yourself. A feeling of awe will bring awareness that you are part of something grander. You will feel a joy that only increases as you turn your attention to it. Painting plein air is only another way to translate all these experiences on canvas.
It might be contra-intuitive to paint plein air/representational in our days. There are no New York Times articles on plein air-realism-modern impressionism. Major galleries and museums ignore anything even vaguely representational, preferring to show abstract art and the more abstract the better. The preference for pure abstraction is a revealing element: Our society encourages us to live in our heads, in a universe of revolving thoughts of our own making, and it seems that it is harder to make up a blissful dream than a nightmare. The more we live in our heads, the farther we go from what we really are, the more we feel estrange from everything around us and from ourselves. There is no surprise that in this time most people struggle with anxiety and depression…
But this dichotomy between realistic/representational and abstract is false. In art, a good representational painting is built on a strong foundation of abstract shapes and colors. An abstract painting needs elements of realism, be that in shape or color, to connect with the viewer. While it takes skill and effort to create any artwork, a representational painting will have more hooks to bring the viewers in, to engage, and to inspire them. If you want to see this for yourself, go this weekend to a gallery and museum, find a good representational painting, and let the experience of joy wash over you.
It is so hot, the colors seem to melt toward a silvery incandescence. A haze dissolves the shapes into each other. I paint from the shelter of my car. Is this still plein air or car air?
Horsebarn Hill: Tree, oil, 10 x 10 inches
I was sitting on my car, sketching a cow, when my gaze was caught by a couple talking animatedly. They were both dress up, she with a red silk blouse, he in a brilliant shirt. They were both smiling and looking at each other. "A date!" I thought, and this was the subejct of the next painting. Notice the clouds hovering over them, like they were also listening to the conversation.
Horsebarn Hill: The Date, oil, 10 x 10 inches