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Take It Outside

August 16, 2018
In conjunction with the Community Arts Center’s (Danville, KY) incredible En Plein Air exhibit, featuring the Plein Air Artists of Central Kentucky (PAACK), I’m discussing the power of taking it outside.  That’s right, I’m talking about packing up the studio and heading outside – En Plein Air!  
Plein Air art-making (notice I didn’t just say painting) has a rich and vibrant history in the timeline of modern art.  In this blog, I’ll be talking about how and why artists took creativity outside, some of the inherent benefits and challenges to capturing the world outside, and some tips to help you get the most out of your experience.
First off – WHY did artists leave the comfort of the studio to march outside in the first place?  For modern artists, stepping outside seems such a hassle with all the heat, the bugs, the possibility of rain, etc – but you have to remember that in the mid-1800s when the Barbizon School and later the Impressionists decided to step outside, they didn’t have all the amenities of the modern studio.  There was no central air and HVAC, no electric lights, and certainly no radio to listen to.   
Studio work was considered the “way to go” and until artists decided to get outside in the real light, it was pretty easy to tell that they were either painting during very limited hours, or by candlelight at night. The colors of the majority paintings being done prior to the mid-1800s were quite a bit more subdued and maybe even muddy in comparison to our modern palette.
Another question – why did artists decide to stay indoors in their hot, poorly lit studios when the great outdoors was beckoning? They simply didn’t have the technology to make it easy. 
However, two very basic inventions allowed artists the freedom to cut themselves loose from the studio. First off, the ability to buy paint in tubes finally made it possible to have portable paint. The concept of creating paint in tubes now seems like a no-brainer, but until the concept came along, I’m sure there was a whole lot of mystique and tradition involved with grinding your own pigments from naturally-sourced items. I’m sure that recipes were passed on from master to apprentice, and that perfecting your own palette was not as easy as hitting Pinterest for the latest formulas. Can you imagine having to grind up your own palette from insects, stones, and plants and then attempting to carry it all outside to set up in an idyllic location? It was a challenge for artists then, as well. 
Another invention, the box easel, allowed artists to carry all of their paints (NOW IN TUBES!) as well as their small canvases outdoors to set up on location. The small, folding suitcase-esque case made carrying all of your materials a breeze, and some box easels were able to hold a freshly painted canvas, allowing you to take your work-in-progress and made-on-the-spot palette back to the studio to finish later, if so desired.
What were (and still are) the benefits to working outside?
  • LIGHTING– First off, the lighting outdoors is far more spectacular than anything you can come up with in the studio.
  • TRUE REPRESENTATION – Imagine back to the mid-1800s when artists didn’t have site photographs to work from, and you have to wonder if most landscapes were not complete works of fiction. If you are in the world you are creating, you are more likely to include the nuances of that environment and translate them to your viewers. Things like humidity, atmospheric haze, and a slight breeze are hard to replicate in the studio.
  • SELECTIVE COMPOSITION – By being onsite, artists have the ability to find and focus on small details that they might overlook if they were just recreating a landscape from a handful of sketches (no photography back in the day – remember).
What were (and still are) the challenges to work outside? It’s kind of funny, because the challenges are directly and inversely related to the benefits.
  • LIGHTING – the lighting does hold still for you while you create outdoors. Want to capture those dramatic rays of sunshine coming through the branches? Well, the sun just went behind a cloud… Want to show that dramatic shadow that falls off the back side of the house and stops just short of the flower garden? Well, the sun shifted since then and everything has moved. The ever-changing light also creates some unintentional benefits – like getting you to commit to the painting rather than dabbling with minutia. The light shifts also create a series of built-in mini deadlines that pressure you to work much faster than you might looking at a photo in the comfort of the studio.
  • TRUE REPRESENTATION – the heat, the bugs, the sunburn, the glare, the thirst, the haze… UGH. Creating outdoors can get a bit too real sometimes. If you look at a show of plein air works, you can often tell the relative temperature of the site just by looking at the painting. Hot days look sweltering, while cooler days look far more relaxed and comfortable.
  • SELECTIVE COMPOSITION – The greatest thing about creating outdoors is that you get to choose a composition that works for you. However, the hardest thing about creating outdoors is choosing a composition that works for you. It can be extremely difficult to narrow the subject matter of your painting site to choose just one composition from all the possibilities presented. You might want the barn, the field, and the sunflowers all in one picture, but figuring out where to set up to capture it can be a big challenge.
TIPS – How can I make the most out of my time creating outdoors?
  • RELAX – Take time to really soak in the whole experience. Hearing the birds and feeling the breeze allows you to create a rich and authentic experience that can be translated to your viewers. So, take some time, breathe in, and relax, BUT…
  • HURRY  – While hurrying seems counter-productive to relaxing, you really have to be intentional about every brushstroke (or whatever your medium requires) to make sure you are capturing it accurately and quickly before the lighting changes.
  • DRESS FOR SUCCESS – Dress accordingly to your surroundings. If it’s hot, wear light colors, and light layers. If you have fair skin, wear sunscreen. In fact, if you have any skin at all, wear sunscreen. If you know that mosquitoes love to nibble on your sweet flesh, wear long sleeves. If you suffer from hayfever or allergies, wear a dust mask. Be sure to prepare for any changes that the weather may hold as well.
  • CHANGE IT UP – Don’t be afraid to be an amateur landscaper. If you really love that beautiful sycamore tree that is fifty feet outside your composition, there are no rules that say you can’t pivot your easel a few degrees and include it in your artwork. Remember that these are paintings – not historical documents.

Interested in learning more about the Plein Air Artists of Central Kentucky? Stop by the current exhibit at the Community Arts Center or contact Roni Gilpin at sistergilpin@aol.com.