Art in General

Plein Aire Painting Woes

As I collect more instructional DVDs from artists I admire, I consistently hear them challenge painters to paint more from life to improve their abilities. But I have a hard time getting models who will sit for several hours while I practice (I have not been able to get anyone to sit for hours while I paint, not even my own family). So, I've determined that the best I can do for now is to paint "en plein aire" I am surrounded by the beautiful Appalachian mountains with winding rivers and pristine scenery, so I packed up the stuff last night and waited to hear back from a friend who agreed to paint with me on an overcast, cloudy Saturday.

The Art Around You

Painting at Wilson Gorge near Lenoir, NC.

Painting at Wilson Gorge near Lenoir, NC.


If you're like me, you have seen advertisements for workshops in foreign exotic locations and wished you could go there and paint. Who wouldn't want to go to Venice or Paris and set up your plein aire easel on some quaint side street for the afternoon to capture the classic sunlight on those buildings that were painted by bygone masters. When I go to the website of painters like CW Mundy and see the latest paintings from his European trips, I wonder if I could pull it off like he does–venture in Europe for a month painting every day and selling them like hotcakes before he even returns. Would I chose to paint the Venice gondolier like generations before me have painted, or would I shrug off such a subject matter because by now I feel it is cliché? Would just being in Venice with a paintbrush make the subject matter extraordinary and worthy of the canvas?

Scott Burdick and his wife Sue travel to exotic places around the world and then present travelogues showing images of peoples and lands far away to a room full of ardent admirers. Their paintings are a selection from the images they captured and the cultural influences they absorbed while circling the globe on adventures. They appear very successful to me and I have thought about what it would take to be able to do what they do. Of course, I have to wait until my kids are gone so that my wife and I can be as unencumbered as they are.

Does the location make the subject matter special? Am I longing for the chance to go somewhere far away so that I can gather material and paint a series that will somehow catapult me to success? Or is there enough around me to fill a life-time of canvases if I just look for it. Today I was introduced to a local resident who is not unusual for this area, and easy not to notice as I drive by her house everyday, but whose little world holds a treasure chest of things that can keep me busy painting for a long time. Mary's life is simple and it seems is complete. She complains about nothing, welcomes everyone and is well cared-for by family, friends and neighbors who stop by and make sure she is fine.

Mary's House

Mary has lived in the same house all of her 92 years and will smile as she tells you about growing up in this area. I'm sure she has repeated these stories to many like me. I did not spend much time with her today but I was fascinated as I heard about a life lived by a common person of uncommon resilience and spunk. Her little wood house has no running water, no indoor plumbing, no refrigerator or television (she was offered one recently and refused it) and yet she seems so content, so satisfied. The few small rooms she lives in are heated by a large cast iron wood stove and the pile of cut and split wood outside tells me I don't have to worry about her when the temps dip down below 10 again like they did last week.

Ninety two years ago the US was just entering World War 1. Today she showed me the photo of a black man standing next to bee hives and she told me he worked for her family until he died in 1925. He was captured as a boy by Confederate forces in South Carolina until he escaped to the mountains where he was able to live among the farm families of the Appalachians. I have never talked to someone who had listened to stories of the Civil War and it gave me a strange sense of connection to the distant past.

As I looked around the simple home and the things that are everyday life to Mary, I saw meaningful compositions for paintings. Sometimes the simple things in life make the most attractive things to paint. They invite the viewer to identify with the surroundings or relate to the symbolism inferred in them. Mary's home is full of such things.

Do we need to go far to find subject matter for painting? Look around and I think you will find that you don't. I will write more about this as I explore the notes and images I have in my mind for future works.