My Path to Plein Air


Plein air painting.  Painting in the “open air”.  My first experience with painting on location was way back when I was in college.  I don’t remember much about the experience, except that I rode my bike out into the Wisconsin countryside and painted the landscape that I saw.  I have no idea what materials I took with me, but my parents still have the two paintings I did that day.  It would be about 25 years before I gave it another try.

I did lots of painting between that first try and my next, 25 years later.  Those “in between” paintings were at first based on my imagination.  I did sketches from life – mostly portraits and still lifes, but they were usually just sketches and I didn’t use them in my paintings.  If I needed a reference, I would use a photo.

About 2005, I had a bit of a revelation. At the time, my paintings came from my imagination.  I used rich colors, lots of texture, and liked to “play with space” in my paintings.  They were representational, but far from “realistic”.  An offhand comment from a customer at the gallery that I was showing in challenged me.  It was my weekend to sit the gallery, and I overheard a couple talking.  “She paints like that because she can’t really paint.”

Well, that comment made me stop and think.  Instead of being insulted, I thought, “Of course I can “really” paint.  I took it as a challenge.  I had never been interested in a realistic style of painting – I loved the post impressionists:  Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne, Modigliani, etc. “Realism” was kind of a bad word when I was in college, so it was not a direction that I ever considered pursuing.

So I took that challenge home and started trying to create recognizable portraits.  It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, but I have always loved a challenge, so I was really enjoying myself.  At the time, I was mostly working from photographs.  I was also doing lots of reading and I started looking at more realistic artists.  I discovered the American artists John Singer Sargent, William Merrit Chase, and Winslow Homer. From all the reading I was doing, it was becoming clear to me that using photographs was not the way to go.  To really “see”, I needed to work from life.  Unfortunately, it was hard to find models willing to sit for me (I had to ask my generally non-cooperative family members), and I just wasn’t all that interested in doing still lifes.

One of my first portraits.  My son Alex.
One of my first portraits. My son Alex.

One weekend, I went with my family to a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  I don’t remember what the main show was that we went to see, but there was a smaller exhibit of Southwestern Landscapes that we also saw.  There were some paintings there by Maynard Dixon – I was fascinated!  The way he simplified the landscape, but still captured its essence, inspired me to attempt a new subject matter.  It would be perfect for me because I didn’t have to worry about finding someone to sit for me – I had the whole Mojave Desert right at my feet, literally!

Since discovering Maynard Dixon, I have also discovered other amazing artists – some old, some new.  Edgar Payne, Gustav Klimt (his landscapes, though I love his portraits), Edward Hopper, Ian Roberts, Richard Schmid, Eric Merrill, Bill Cramer, among others.  They all have different styles, but they have these things in common – they simplify the landscape, capture the light beautifully, and have a command of colors and value that I aspire to one day share.  Also, they all have very painterly styles; brushstrokes are very apparent, and details are kept to only those absolutely needed to convey the subject.  You know you are looking at a painting when you see their work.  I really appreciate paintings that look abstract when you are up close, but come together as a recognizable image when you step away a bit.

So here I am today, painting plein air landscapes.  I don’t consider myself a realist,  and those gallery customers might still think I can’t really paint, but I am grateful to them for inspiring me to go a different direction in my art than I ever thought I might go.

It’s interesting to see how events in our lives get us to where we are today.  What events in your life have influenced your art?  I invite you to share your direction changing events in the comments.

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