The Hazards of Being A Plein Aire Artist
Plein aire is the French term for open air, first popularized by the impressionists in the late eighteen hundreds. The first group of impressionists began setting up their easels outdoors around the 1860s. Before that time, most artists worked in their studios from sketches or from memory.
There are many benefits to working on location. Artists are in the position to seize the essence of their subjects because they are surrounded by their auras. They breathe the air, smell the aromas and sense the depth. The ultimate skill of a plein aire artist is to paint emotion, not information. Accuracy gives way to fluidity, and the ability to communicate essence through stroke and color. The hand that manipulates the brush must touch the canvas with strokes that convey the significance of that moment in that place. Powerful objects require powerful strokes. Delicate objects require delicate strokes. Being on the location allows the artist a full range of sensory information from which to utilize.
The plein aire artist must endure challenges created by Mother Nature herself, as well as those encountered in painting and creating. On one occasion, I was painting along the San Simeon coast, and had set up on a series of rocks twenty-five feet from the sand. My concentration was focused only on the landscape and my canvas. I suddenly found myself surrounded by water on all sides. I had to flag down a tourist to catch my equipment, and then waded in various depths of water to get back to shore. There was also the time on the Ortega Highway ten miles east of Dana Point, when I was working just off the road and a gust of wind caught my easel, blowing it over and sending ninety-six sticks of colored pastel into the highway. It was a beautiful sight as the road lit up in color. As cars passed, they crushed the sticks into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually dyeing the entire road in an array of hues. Their was another instants when, I was set up on the edge of a field when a jack rabbit on a full sprint suddenly found me directly in his path. He put the skids on, to no avail, as he collided with the easel. The surprise of that moment cost both of us a few extra heart beats. The elements can make it very difficult to work. The extremes in weather, the insects, and other annoyances keep most landscape artists in their studios. But to the true plein air artist, the elements only add to the sensation of capturing the truth of that moment in that place.
Mother Nature is not the only obstacle facing an outdoor painter. People can provide some very interesting stories. There was a time when I was painting on the cliffs near Ragged Point, about twenty miles north of San Simeon, and a photographer crept up two feet behind me, positioned himself on his knees seeking an interesting perspective for his photo. Backing away from my easel, as I often do to get a truer look at my work and unaware of his presence, his body caught me at the back of my knees. This caused me to roll over him thus propelling me into a complete backward somersault on the ground behind him. In his embarrassment, he got up and sprinted off, leaving me on the ground still in shock, yet with a smile on my face. In San Francisco I had panhandlers interrupting me about every five minutes. Out of change, and only enough money for my own needs, I got tired of making excuses for not lending a hand. I went to my van and found a piece of cardboard. With red pastel in bold print I wrote, “HUNGRY, WILL WORK OR PAINT FOR FOOD,” and placed it at the base of my easel. It worked like a charm keeping the beggars away, yet no one offered me a job.
I have been thrown out of gambling houses in Las Vegas because they thought I was a spy, and surrounded by farmers as I was trying to capture the beauty of their land. I asked how many of them had ever taken an art class. The answer was a resounding zero. I packed my equipment and moved on.
Sometimes when painting, I will move a tree or dwelling for the sake of a better composition. I have had individuals come up and tell me that I was not supposed to do that. Annoyed by their picayunish comment I leaned against my easel and asked them if they wanted to frisk me and read me my rights, and on another occasion I fetched my cell phone so they could call 911.
These stories and many, many more are a part of the plein aire experience. I owe much of my growth and development in the field of visual art to painting on location. I can paint bad pictures all day, yet when the day is done, I feel a great sense of being, because the day was spent intimately with Mother Nature and all the beauty she has to offer.