When people go out for a hike, paddle, or ski, there are a number of different ways they experience the environment. They are likely to be observant, but the hiker may be focused on the route and watching for trail markers; the paddler watching for rocks, rapids, and where the carries are; and the skier alert to obstacles and those pesky trees at the bottom of hills where there is a sharp turn. A photographer looks for composition, lighting, texture. A birder will listen and look for movement in the trees.
The plein air artist has an entirely different outdoor experience.
August 16 – 19, about 50 plein air artists will be converging on Saranac Lake for the 4th Adirondack Plein Air Festival. There will be 3 days of painting outdoors, at various locations, and then a Show & Sale in the Town Hall from 12 – 4 on Sunday Aug 19. Spectators are welcome at all the events and there is no admission charge. Thursday August 16 the artists will be painting in the Village of Saranac Lake. On Friday August 17 they will be out at the Paul Smith’s College VIC and on Saturday August 18 they will be free to choose their own painting locations although a list of suggested locations will be provided. The Adirondack Artists Guild Gallery, 52 Main St., Saranac Lake will be event headquarters and information for spectators and buyers will be available there. This event is sponsored by Saranac Lake ArtWorks and information is online at saranaclakeartworks.com/pleinair
So – how does a plein air artist perceive the environment? Well, like the hiker, we sometimes need maps and if we’re very far from a road, we often need a backpack or some method to carry our gear: easel, paints, brushes, palette, canvases, etc. Painters will be in optimum observation mode – continually scanning for an appealing location to paint. Different artists will seek out different subject matter: some like vast, panoramic views and others prefer more intimate, close-up scenes; busy, complex vegetation or land forms might be the appeal while others like more simple compositions – an open field and an old barn. Where is the sun? Will it be back-lighting the subject matter, making it difficult to see, or creating harsh shadows – or interesting shadows that help define the forms. Are there colors or textures or details that make a particular location “interesting” to the artist? All of us, whether artist or not, will be attracted to different features of the land: mountains, fields, forests, buildings, lakes, brooks, rocks, plants, etc.
The emotional response to a place can have a powerful impact. Memories of a pleasant camping trip or family vacation will sometimes subliminally affect the choice of a painting location. Someone with a charming cottage on a lovely lake will absolutely adore their view across the water. It’s what they see when they sit and relax on their porch and escape their busy home lives. But when the artist sees it, they might just see a large expanse of plain, boring, water and a distant shoreline with no distinctive features. So the plein air painter is continuously taking in and responding to what they see, reacting to their memories and emotions, plus they have to think about what will make a “good” painting. Many will tell you they can’t just paint anywhere. They have to wait for a place that touches them in some way, plus has elements or features that will be important to them, personally, in the act of creating art.
Lighting is another extremely significant component. Everyone has probably had the experience where you’ve taken a photo of family or friends standing in front of a great view – the Grand Canyon, or some other wonderful place. You look at your photos later and the people are unrecognizable, all in shadow, and the background is overly bright. That is an exposure problem and primarily one that only happens with cameras. Our eyes are wonderful little machines – they function just fine under many different conditions, but most importantly, they compensate for exposure extremes. I learned this after taking thousands of landscape photos that never looked like how I remembered them. They would be too bright or too dark or details would be lost in shadow or colors pale and washed out. Painters become very aware of this. We can paint what our eyes see. The evidence of this often appears when I take a photo of one of my paintings, upon the easel in the location where I painted it. If I get the exposure right on the painting, the background is often too dark or too light, and vice versa. So, when they are paying close attention to this, plein air painters are actually recreating a more true view of a specific place than any camera can record.
Time is another item that factors into plein air painting. A camera records a fraction of a second of time. Light, shadow, detail – all preserved. When an artist sets up to paint a particular view, the morning light might be over their left shoulder and by the time they finish up the piece, it might be behind their right shoulder. The sky could go from clear to cloudy. Light defines forms and so the changing light has a direct impact on where the shadows are and how much detail can be seen. Light also affects colors of sky and water and objects. The real challenge of plein air painting is capturing the essence of a place over a period of time. The intent is not a perfect record of an instant of time, like a camera, but a record of the experience of painting the place. Sometimes if a painting can’t be finished in one sitting we return on another day, however it’s never really the same. I try to avoid that now. My plein air paintings are about the place, the experience, and one block of time – all rolled into one object that hopefully will be enjoyable to look at.
If you would like to see how this whole process works, talk with and observe artists at work, and perhaps bring home a unique souvenir, attend the Adirondack Plein Air Festival, August 16 – 19, in Saranac Lake. Can’t make that one, there is another in Old Forge on Labor Day weekend, organized by VIEW. Want to learn how to do plein air painting? Attend a workshop at White Pine Camp, by Gabriels artist Diane E. Leifheit, Sept 23 – 28, 2012.
Photos: Above, painters along the Saranac River; below, painting the Oswegatchie.