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 Watauga River winds through the mountains and provides some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine. Rocks, trees, deep pools, fly fishermen... this river has it all. You can pull over as you are driving on the road right next to the water, then carry your stuff down a steep embankment, holding on to branches and sliding a bit as you navigate your way to a rocky and sandy spot along the bank.

My painting friend was late so I set up at a spot where I could imagine a simple composition: a large rock with the water rushing around it and the opposite bank framing the verdant scene. I pulled out my easel and supplies then ate a lite lunch I had packed before I got paint all over my fingers. I am careful these days not to mix my food with paint. I think that is the least I can do to adhere to some safety standards in my painting practice.

The day's weather was intermittently overcast then sunny so I started blocking in a small 9 x 12 in linen canvas mounted on foamcore, the kind I like to pack because they are lightweight and seem to provide a good surface for the paint. I get a bit frustrated with them at times because I like a smoother surface for faster paint application and when I am sitting outdoors, speed is one of the goals I keep in the forefront of my mind.


My painting companion showed up and walked down stream to find a spot where he could paint. He was using a borrowed French easel and was just starting with oils after years of painting in acrylics. There is plenty of scenery to choose from but I have found that simple compositions are hard to choose. When you are in a candy store with so much variety, picking out just one piece can be a challenge and so it is with taking care that your paintings don't become a massive effort in futility because you have tried to paint too much.

And that seems to sum up my frustrations with composition these days. I have such a drive to simplify and show the essence of a subject that I wrestle with paring the scene down to its simplest parts. That, I believe, is the secret to lasting impact in a painting and capturing the viewer's attention right away. I sit in front of all this beauty and I want to paint it all but I later regret such a venture as I don't even like what I rendered. There is a danger to that kind of unbridled artistic lust and it produces lousy paintings. I think you have seen plenty of them.

Simplify, simplify, simplify... is the mantra rattling around in my head as I sit by the water's edge.

That is why composition is so important to me in my pursuit of learning and improving. Simplify, simplify, simplify... is the mantra rattling around in my head as I sit by the water's edge.

Well, it didn't take too long before the rains came and my painting partner got soaked. I had my sun umbrella packed in my gear so I pulled it out and deployed it to protect myself from the drops and kept going for another hour. But alas, I too was overcome after a bit and decided to pack up and go. I knew I had taken enough photos of these scene that I could finish it at home, and so, I did.

Is plein aire painting the answer to learning that magical touch called, "painting from life?" I don't know. But I am not about to give up. I want to make sure I learn all I can from this venture and I have plenty of material around me to experiment on.