Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Portrait Painter's Analysis of the Plein Air Experience

Well, obviously since it's been over a month since my last post, things have been busy here at Artwork by Anna Rose! It's a good kind of busy, though - all of my projects are fun and exciting, and I'm doing a lot of teaching this month, which is wonderful. However, even when the business of life is good, it's easy to get worn down. For this reason, I am realizing more and more that it's important for us artists to have fun, zero-stress projects to work on every once in a while. I learned from my trip to Europe that the few times I had to paint en plein air were really moments to cherish, because they were incredibly relaxing. True, there are always logistical and aesthetic problems to solve while working outdoors (e.g. those pesky bugs, or that tree that doesn't quite fit in the composition...), but that's the kind of "stress" I enjoy. Plein air painting has suddenly become for me an escape from life's stress and the mundane, with each hour or two I spend at it like a mini artistic retreat. I have only taken to it this past year, but now I understand why so many artists love it, and why so many portrait artists suppliment their commission work with landscape painting. The adrenaline rush I get when painting a portrait from life has now extended to painting landscapes from life, and I am absolutely enamored with this new branch of exploration in my artistic journey.

As a portrait artist, I find that landscape painting is relaxing, first of all, because there is no need for a 100% accurate likeness. While capturing a likeness has never been too much of a struggle for me, it still requires a great deal of concentrated observation, and demands complete focus. With plein air, even if the scene is well-known (like a famous bridge or mountain), there are many more liberties that can be taken. This kind of painting is teaching me how to simplify, leave things out, or perhaps bring things in from the surrounding landscape in ways that photography simply can't.

Secondly, I find painting outdoors to be relaxing because I've always been a lover of nature. I get cabin fever pretty easily, especially in this Texas heat, so a little field trip to the great outdoors is just the solution. I can spend time outside while still being productive!

I should mention that proper equipment is a must! I've posted several pictures here and there of my plein air set-up, but for my artist friends, I'll describe it in a little more detail. I use a Guerilla Painter Travel Box, in size 9x12. This box is fabulous, as it is lightweight, it can hold all my paints as well as several wet 9x12 panels, and it mounts to a regular camera tripod. It fits inside of a large backpack, along with all my other supplies (paper towels, brushes, camera, etc.). You have to purchase accessories separately, but I highly recommend at least getting the Mighy Mite brush washer, the paper towel holder, and the multi mount collapsible umbrella. I also purchased wet panel carriers in various sizes from Raymar Art, and would recommend Raymar panels over any other brand.

Here is my partial set-up, down by a river near where I live. I wished I had brought my umbrella, on this particular occasion, but at least I remembered to wear a hat!


Here is the first painting I completed while trying out my pochade box. The painting sold at my local gallery after just a week or two.


Stripes of the Storm - 9x12 - oil on Raymar panel - private collection

Below: using my pochade box on my trip to Europe. This was in Florence, overlooking the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. You can see the paper towel holder in use. My palette was a Jack Richeson "Grey Matters" pad of grey wax paper in 9"x12", which fit perfectly inside the pochade box. The wine glass is optional...


And below: a little gem from this past weekend. I think I'm getting better at plein air. It sure is exciting!

 "Morning Calm in Texas Summer"  - 8x8 - oil on Raymar panel

For me, plein air painting isn't about whether or not I'm destined to be an excellent landscape painter - if that happens, then I consider that a bonus. What it really comes down to is this: with this experience, I've become better at seeing. Suddenly, I'm beginning to learn how to leave my brain out of the equation, and react instinctively to what's in front of me. This added knowledge will transcend to all other aspects of my work -- portraits, commission work, figurative painting... So, dear artist friends, I recommend you do the same - get out of the safety of your studio and head outside for some fresh air, easel and brushes in hand...

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