en plein air
“Spell check” may not like the expression “en plein air” very much but for some reason artists today still use this rather antiquated phrase for painting outdoors. The term originated around 1800 and is attributed to Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819) who first expounded on the concept in a treatise entitled Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting, Particularly on Landscape. The concept is what I am most interested in and what I have finally come home to. Years ago, I would ONLY paint from life either outdoors or in the studio. When I think back to some of those paintings, like the ones I did on Presque Isle near my earlier home, I can feel a presence that I don’t often feel from paintings I do from photographs. When I paints outdoors, I have to paint fairly quickly as the conditions can vary greatly within a short period of time. The light changes; bugs bight; temperatures vary; wind blows. Because of that I can’t get hung up on details. I bring to the painting, not only what I see but also the smells and sounds and feel of the whole environment. All of the senses become part of the painting. Over the summer I was invited by a new friend and watercolorist in the area to join her and others at a plein air event. I put it off until one day the group was scheduled to paint literally in my backyard, on the other side of Sugarloaf Mountain, MY mountain. How could I say no?
We painted along the Ocooee River for just a couple of hours and I fell in love again with plein air. For the past few months I have been setting aside at least one morning a week to paint outdoors or (if weather prohibits that) in the plein air state of mind. It has become a weekly meditation. The paintings are not necessarily spectacular but the experience definitely is. When I draw or paint this way–outdoors, surrounded by the sights and sounds of flora and fauna–I am transported into another universe, no background music but the songs of the birds; no “breaking news” reports other than the breakthroughs of mindfulness. My preference is to paint alone.
One Sunday morning recently, I spent close to two hours sitting and drawing near Cookson Creek. I know the cooler months will not be conducive to sitting on a stool outside, so I wanted to experiment with drawing and taking notes and then working from those to translate them into a painting back in the studio, kind of a hybrid of plein air plus studio work. I wish I could bottle the peace that came over me. Cookson Creek, which flows into the Ocoee River, goes right under the bridge on our quiet country road. The sun shone brightly filtered by thickets of trees just starting to turn to fall colors. Carolina wrens sang. Woodpeckers pecked. Crows cawed. Leaves fluttered and walnuts dropped noisily. The slightly chilled fresh air smelled of decaying leaves. The drawing came easily. My goal was to paint from the drawing, only using this short video to remind me of those peace-filled sounds and, to some extent, the scene itself.
This is the painting that came from that experience. I called it “Remembering The Sycamore”.
That slanted silvery tree that is reflected in the creek is a sycamore, reminding me of my once Sycamore Gallery and this blog, too . (Why “Sycamore Notes?” she said….) My personal goal is to do more plein air painting as circumstances allow. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever work from photos. There are a lot of times when that works best. It also does not mean I won’t experiment with combining media in my work or trying new surfaces to paint on. But this old-but-now-new-again way of painting mindfully is what my soul needs to keep my work fresh and authentic. My hope is that it will touch your heart as it has mine.