Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sandra Hildreth: The Plein Air Phenomenon

N. Brossard in Saranac Lake. M. Kurtz photoAugust 21st through the 24th nearly 80 artists from Washington, DC to Maine, Quebec and Ontario, will be converging on Saranac Lake for the 6th Annual Adirondack Plein Air Festival.

Beautiful August weather (fingers crossed) and all the aspects of our region: mountains, lakes, bogs, waterfalls, woodland trails, panoramic views, rivers, farm land, “Great Camps”, historic sites and our small communities are all part of the attraction.

The other, if you haven’t noticed, is the growing popularity of plein air painting. The Festival concludes with a fantastic Show & Sale on Sunday,  Aug 24th, in the Town Hall in Saranac Lake from 12 – 3 pm. Over 200 wet paintings will be on display and available for purchase.

The phenomenon of plein air painting has been sweeping across the country for the past decade. There are plein air festivals in probably every state – some smaller that the Adirondack Plein Air Festival coming up, others much more significant. Not more artists than Saranac Lake is attracting, but more buyers. Plein Air Easton, in Maryland, reported that they were selling a painting every 45 seconds during their 2 hour preview party. Of course that is an area with a much higher population density than the northern Adirondacks.

Kirk Larsen, a Long Island artist who is coming to Saranac Lake, participated in Easton and sold 10 paintings! I participated in the Telluride and Aspen Plein Air Festivals and witnessed several artists who sold out all the paintings they had produced the prior 4 days. How do we explain this popularity for something that has to be done quickly, in a few hours, completed on the spot, and often has pine needles and dead bugs stuck in the paint?

Let me describe for you a typical plein air painting day and that might help explain the phenomenon. Early morning is a good time for mist rising on the water and still reflections, so I might drive around looking for that kind of a view or hike into a spot I’ve scouted out before. As the sun comes up there is a brief period of golden glowing light, much like there is in the late evening – it helps to be looking north or south so the slanting rays of the early sun cut across your view – highlighting specific land forms. Views to the west often feature the suns first light hitting the mountain tops and tall trees. Views to the east are often back-lit forms – harder to paint but not to be disregarded. Most eastern views will be better with afternoon light. In the summer, when the landscape is green, green and more green, I look for places with water, rocks, fallen dead trees, open fields, wildflowers, or something to break up the monotony of green. If none of that can be found – I hope for clouds, tumbling, billowing cumulous clouds or wispy “mare’s tails” scudding across the sky. Anything for some variety and/or movement.

My 30+ pound backpack carries my easel, oil paints, palette, brushes, paint mediums, and a variety of sizes of linen canvases. I can’t decide in advance what size painting I’m going to do – the view I select defines what size it will be painted and whether it will be a vertical or horizontal composition and square or rectangular, small or large. I bring drinking water, extra clothes, lunch, camera, sun screen, etc. Maps and first aid kit if I’m heading into the back country

Oil painting of Durant Lake by the author..

When I find my spot, here’s what happens. Pack comes off, easel is set up in 30 seconds. I make a quick decision about what size canvas to paint and lock it onto the easel. I uncover my palette and if I’m lucky, it’s still full of oil paint from the last time I used it and the paint is still soft. If not, I grab tubes of paint and squeeze out fresh globs of color. Open the painting medium and begin. I am always looking, so once I’m set up I’ve usually already selected the specific composition I will paint.

I mix up some burnt sienna and ultramarine blue and add a little white – which gives me a neutral gray. Thin it down with some painting medium, dab a brush into it and make about 4-5 streaks across the canvas to indicate the major lines and shapes of my composition. Working rapidly, with a 1 inch wide brush, I get the entire canvas covered with a layer of paint, filling in the major forms with the appropriate colors. Light, shadows and details get added next.

This is when I slow down, observe more carefully, and am impacted more by the passage of time. Artists have always worked outdoors doing quick sketches or studies as a basis for larger studio work. To actually create and complete a painting outdoors, and make it a good painting, is another story. For someone who used to paint from photographs, it took me a while to transition into the more flexible, dynamic nature of plein air painting. I no longer feel like I’m painting a moment of time – a glimpse of a view preserved forever. My plein air paintings are a morning, or an afternoon, or even a whole day at a particular place. Not one instant of light and shade and shapes and colors, but hours of time. My goal is to make a “good” painting – which means it has pleasing arrangements of the visual elements (line, shape, color, texture, value) and a mood or message that may be communicated – as well as to record my experience, over time, of a specific place. So – while the painting shown here looks like it could have been based on a 1/500th second exposure of a camera – the sky represents how it looked when I first arrived, the light on the pickerel weed in the center part of the painting occurred much later in the morning, and the shapes of the mist rising from the mountains occurred at a different time. The skill comes in getting it all to fit together in a believable way.

I used to get all stressed out when I’d completed part of a painting, matching the light and shadow areas to what I was observing, only to have the clouds and sun move and totally alter the scene. I would feel compelled to alter the painting to match, but that often led to muddied colors and a loss of definition. Now I go more with the flow of time. After the canvas is covered with the initial layer of paint, I pick and choose what “moments” I record. If I like how the light hits a specific spot – I paint it that way. I do a lot of looking: what are the key features of the view, what needs detail, where is the light hitting and where are the shadows. How to make certain parts of the view appear farther back in space and give emphasis to other parts. How will the eye of the viewer move through the painting. Sometimes I wait for clouds to move into an arrangement I happen to like, before I actually add them in to a painting. I kind of like letting nature determine what I paint, although I am not afraid to pull out my artistic license and take liberties for the sake of creating a painting of merit as opposed to just covering a canvas with paint.

By this time, a couple of hours may have gone by and I’ve got several layers of oil paint on my canvas. The sun is progressing across the sky and everything is continually changing. Now is when I tweak and revise. Sometimes a 3rd layer of color is applied to further refine the shapes I see or to add details and correct mistakes. Things like reflections often change a great deal as the light changes or wind picks up – again, I watch for what I like and then try to paint it as quickly as possible.

The other significant component of plein air painting is the need for speed. I find what works best for me is to totally immerse myself in what I’m doing. I don’t think about what I’m painting – is that the right amount of ocher added to the green to make it look like old moss, I just mix colors until it looks right. I don’t question if I’ve painted something that looks like the limbs of a white pine tree, I just try to paint shapes that look like what I’m looking at. I observe, paint, observe some more, paint some more until I’m pleased with the results. I let my intuition be my guide and really try not to analyze and think about things but try to be in the moment and experience it with paint. When asked how long it takes me to complete a painting, I feel I can truthfully answer “3 or 4 hours…. and about 40 years of experience!”. All the prior time spent learning, observing and experiencing is just as important as the hours of actual painting.

How does a painter know when the painting is done? For me, when I begin to see the painting as a work of art, with passages that attract the eye and elements that evoke some kind of viewer response, when it’s more than just a record of what I’m seeing – that’s when I know I’m close to being done. Paintings are probably never finished but they do reach a point when it feels comfortable to stop working on them. This is when they can stand on their own and not have to be explained or compared to whatever reality they were depicting. A typical full day of plein air painting for me will involve a morning painting, an afternoon painting, and often another in the evening. When I’m in the groove, I’m in the groove!

Capturing the essence of a place, especially a natural place, is, I think, the real reason plein air painting has become a phenomenon. This is something many, especially those who live and work in urban areas, can never do any more. Experience the outdoors for 3-4 hours at a time. Be in one spot, one with nature, and absorb what you are seeing with every breath you take. Feel the same breeze that caused the leaves of the nearby tree to rustle. Watch the ripples and flashes of sunlight on water bubbling down a rocky, mountain brook. Feel the warmth of the sun fade when it goes behind a cloud. Witness the moving shadows and changing light as the sun sinks below the horizon. I believe there is an archetypal need in all of us to still be part of nature, the way all mankind once lived. Maybe plein air artists are providing a vicarious opportunity for this through their paintings!

Experience the Adirondack Plein Air Festival and marvel at how the vision of artists and the passage of time is transformed into a painting. Observe how different artists render the same view, or how the same view changes when painted from one day to another. They won’t all be mountain landscapes either. Plein air painters find great beauty in street scenes, farms and factories, in old broken down machinery and shiny new equipment. Boats, trucks, gardens, farmers markets, concerts – there is a painter coming who found out a band he favors will be playing at The Waterhole on Aug 21 and so will likely be found there painting the musicians as well as enjoying the music! You could find yourself included in a painting! Nocturnes – paintings done at night, are also popular.

Check out the Saranac Lake ArtWorks website for Adirondack Plein Air Festival information. Stop at the Adirondack Artists Guild or the Chamber of Commerce in Saranac Lake to pick up a schedule, map and directions to painting locations.

Most will be in the Village of Saranac Lake on Thursday Aug 21 and on the trails at the Paul Smith’s College VIC on Friday Aug 22. Saturday they may paint where ever they choose.

If you see a car pulled off the side of the road and an easel set up – stop and watch. The artists all welcome spectators, so feel free come over and chat – just know they may not stop painting! If you find yourself really attracted to a painting, buy it on the spot!

The culminating Show & Sale is Sunday Aug 24 in the Harrietstown Town Hall on Main St. in Saranac Lake. Doors will open at 12 noon, prizes are awarded at 1 and it closes at 3 pm. Over 200 paintings, wet paint and all, that were produced during the 3 previous days will be on display and for sale. There will also be a silent auction of donated paintings and a portion of the proceeds will be given to the art program in the Saranac Lake Central School district. Spectators can vote for the “People’s Choice” award and participating painters will vote for the “Artist’s Choice”. This event is a chance to bring a unique piece of the Adirondacks home with you.

Need more plein air? There’s another festival in Potsdam, Sept 18-20.

Photo, above, N. Brossard in Saranac Lake (courtesy M. Kurtz); and below, Lake Durant by the author.

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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

5 Responses

  1. Gail Mckay says:

    Sandra, your well written article helped me to understand what plein air painting is all about. The in-depth descriptions of how you get a painting to be what you want it to be is very helpful to me and other artists I’m sure.

  2. Terry Rozycki says:

    Wonderful article. Really explains the ins and outs of Plein Air Painting. However, I would like your readers to know that View in Old Forge, NY will be hosting it’s 6th Plein Air Paint Out August 28-30 and Art Auction on August 30 at 5:30 pm in Gould Hall at View.

  3. Marsha Stanley says:

    Sandra, this was terrific learning about how plein air painting differs. My husband and I go to the show every year and come away with something lovely. So sad we will miss it this year. Thank you for bringing this festival to the Adirondacks and all the artists who come with it. I know it will grow and grow over time.

  4. An excellent description of plein air painting and Sandra’s own dedicated painting practice is a joy to hear about! As a first time participant of the event this year I had so much fun meeting the other artists and being part of the energy that I will definitely be back next year! Bravo Sandra!