Friday, August 2, 2013

Caution: Wet Paint! Adirondack Plein Air Festival

adirondack plein air festival, adirondack artThe 5th Annual Adirondack Plein Air Festival will be taking place Aug 15-18 in the Saranac Lake area. Be forewarned – there’s going to be a lot of “wet paint”! Here’s a quick rundown of the schedule:

Thursday Aug 15: 10-3 “Paint the Town” Day. Downtown Saranac Lake. Silent Auction starts at 4 pm. 3rd Thursday ArtWalk from 5-7:30.

Friday Aug 16: 9-5 “Paint the VIC” Day. All the artists will be out on the trails at the Paul Smith’s College VIC. From 5-7 there is the opening reception for the “Plein Air Invitational” – a show of plein air paintings previously done at the VIC.

Saturday Aug 17: 9-9 “Paint the Adirondacks” Day. Artists will be free to paint wherever they choose. Watch for them!

Spectators are welcome at all these events and there is no charge. Come watch art being made! Event headquarters is the Adirondack Artists Guild Gallery, 52 Main St., in Saranac Lake. Get information, maps, and schedules there.

Sunday Aug 18 – 12 noon to 4 pm – a Show & Sale will be held in the Harrietstown Town Hall, 39 Main St., Saranac Lake. Awards will be given out at 1 pm. This show will consist entirely of paintings done during the festival. You better get there early….

Plein air, or painting outdoors in the open air, gained public attention when the French Impressionists did it. It also coincided with the development of oil paints in tubes. Prior to that time (mid to late 1800’s), oil paints came as powdered pigments. Artists had to create their own colors by mixing pigment and binders such as linseed oil. Not easily portable. Paint in tubes must have been very liberating for artists! Around the same time somebody developed what is now known as the French easel – a portable easel that can hold paints, palette and canvas, and folds up into an easily carried box. With these tools, the French Impressionists cast aside the dark, formal style of painting done in the studio, and opted for more quickly done, colorful, light and airy “impressions” of the world around them.

Like most art movements or styles, Impressionism, as well as plein air painting, gained and lost popularity as tastes changed over time. The modern art movement of the early 20th century discarded practically everything that had been done in the past as artists came up with new, exciting, abstract ways of expressing what they saw and felt.

By the time I got to college (almost 50 years ago), art professors were pushing “modernism” and plein air painting was “old-fashioned”, so I never even learned what it was. Well, things have changed! I too feel liberated – the idea that I can go outdoors, into a beautiful landscape, experience all the sights and smells of it, and have the joy of creating a painting, is almost too good to be true! I honestly think if every artist realized how much fun it was – whether in the Adirondack wilderness or a New York city street, they would discover painting outdoors is a blast!

I will concede, it may not be for everyone. There are certain challenges the plein air painter must face head on and not all artists want to work that way. Here’s what it’s like.

You go outdoors and the first thing you have to do is select your subject matter. We can’t just paint anywhere. I have to find a spot that appeals to me – that has the elements in it that I like to paint. Sometimes I end up walking around for hours before I can pick the right spot. The lighting has to be good and for me, a landscape painter, I want something of interest in the landscape. If you look carefully at my paintings, you will see what appeals to me – interesting shapes within the landscape (the winding course of a river), varieties of textures (rocks, tree bark, water), unusual forms (the tree blown over by a wind storm), and subtle colors (not the bright red of a fall maple tree, but the pale pinkish orange in a sunset sky).

Our supplies need to be portable and easy to carry. I fit all my gear into a backpack so I can go anywhere. But after selecting a subject, the next challenge the plein air painter faces is time. We don’t have a lot of time. Artists accustomed to working in their studios often put in long hours, day after day. For a plein air painter – time becomes compressed. Taking an hour to select a subject already is a hazard. There really isn’t time to ponder all the intricacies of what’s been selected to paint. Or to think about the variety of ways you might approach the subject and compose the painting. You just have to get to work! It takes a studio painter years to develop their skills and techniques. It takes plein air painters years to develop the skills to do everything quickly.

I have come to believe that when I am working on a painting outdoors, that I set aside what I know and what I’ve learned, and I let my intuition be my guide. The knowledge is all in my head somewhere – but I try to just respond to what I’m seeing, hearing, feeling. To go directly from what my senses perceive to making marks and shapes on the canvas with a brush. I think I really try to leave my brain out of it – if that makes any sense at all. I don’t think about what I’m painting – what mountain it is, whether it’s a maple tree or a white pine in the view, if a color is ultramarine blue or yellow ochre – I look at the shapes and colors and try to recreate them, in a pleasing way, on my canvas.

paintsEver wonder why artists squirt out blobs of every color they have on their palettes? So we don’t have to think about it while we’re painting. I know what the names of my paint colors are, and what their characteristics are, but that’s all kept in storage – a glacial erratic is a little bit of this and a little bit of that mixed in with more of something else. I suspect all painters eventually use color that way. For a plein air painter, it’s absolutely essential to be pretty skilled at mixing colors and quickly capturing what you see, the shapes, the light areas, the shadows, the textures.

Studio painters might work for hours, then stop, step back, and study what they’ve done. Analyze it. Interpret it. Figure out what they want to do next. Plein air painters don’t have time for that. The light is continuously changing – which effects the shapes and colors – and there are only so many hours. If we stop and study what we’ve done for an hour – it could look entirely different when we return to painting.

So for me, at least, everything becomes impulsive and intuitive. I have to make myself stop and step back every once in awhile to look at what I’ve done, even if just for a moment. To take in the whole instead of just the part I’ve been concentrating on. I work quickly, I don’t overanalyze, I trust in what “feels” like the right thing to do.

My process involves starting with a toned canvas, so I don’t have a big blank white shape to cover up. I quickly sketch my composition in thinned down grey paint, then work as fast as I can to block in all the shapes and basic colors. Then it’s a good time to pause momentarily and see how it looks. Make adjustments if necessary. Then tackle the details. My paintings usually have at least 2 if not 3 layers of paint. The first is the quick, thinned down color filling in all the spaces. Then the next layer builds in the details – the textures, places where the colors change to indicate different forms or surfaces.

If I like how the sky looks when I start – I paint it in right away. If there’s nothing interesting going on with the sky, then I work on the rest of the painting and watch the sky until I see something I like. The same with reflections and shadows. That means most plein air paintings aren’t simply a reproduction of what the artist happened to see at a specific place – they actually become a record of the time the artist has spent in a that place. We could end up with a morning sky, a mid-day landscape, and evening shadows! The whole point is to create a good painting based on the subject matter we’re experiencing. It’s very different from a photograph or a painting done from a photograph – both are presenting to the viewer just a fraction of a second of time. A plein air painting shows you the time spent, and it could be hours.


Do we always finish a painting on the spot? Not always. It’s really a thrill when it can be accomplished. When I participated in the Finger Lakes Plein Air Festival, it was the 3rd and last day to paint and I was diving down a road through farm country alongside Canandaigua Lake when I spotted an old barn that you could see through. The front door was open, you could look right through it and out the back door and see the hilly landscape beyond – there was even a tree nicely framed in the opening. I did a quick u-turn, parked, and painted. It only took a few hours, but when I stopped and stepped back, I knew I’d made a bunch of good, intuitive decisions. I never had to do another brush stroke on that painting – I just added a frame, called it “Barn with a View” and it was awarded an Honorable Mention!  But often what happens is we work for hours, get the canvas all covered, several layers of paint, and then it’s all wet and the colors start to get muddy and it’s time to stop. Sometimes the painting can simply be touched up at home – sometimes it requires a trip back to the location. And sometimes it just gets painted over because it doesn’t quite work and you know you can do better.

So back to the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. Plein air painting is a lot of fun for the artists, and they are very welcoming to spectators. They might not talk much because they’re concentrating. It’s that right brain/left brain thing. Seeing, feeling and painting are  done using the right side of the brain – talking involves the left. It’s hard to do both well at the same time. Come watch the process and enjoy the outdoor experience of seeing art being created. Perhaps take home a piece of the Adirondacks that you know is unique and original and will never be done the same way again! But watch out for the wet paint!


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Sandra Hildreth, who writes regularly about Adirondack arts and culture, grew up in rural Wisconsin and is a retired high school art teacher. She lives in Saranac Lake where she was spends much of her time hiking, paddling, skiing, and painting.

Today, Sandy can often be found outdoors Plein air painting - working directly from nature, and is an exhibiting member of the Adirondack Artists' Guild in Saranac Lake. She is also active in Saranac Lake ArtWorks.

Sandy’s work can be seen on her website

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