Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: In Plain Air

Landscape painting done outside (as opposed to in the studio) is said to be done en plein air, which is French for "outdoors." In its native language it is pronounced like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wVm9ECfaiI

Nearly every American I've ever heard talk about it, though, just calls it "plain air." Now, I can be a snobbish as the next person, but the truth is, this is one time I prefer the bastardized version. There is something about the words "plain air" that sounds refreshing.

Artists have always painted outside, but the real heydey of plein air painting got going in the nineteenth century, probably as the result of having paints and canvases that were more portable. It was also the time that the so-called "French easel" was invented--a box and easel that could fold up into a single, cartable package. That is a French easel in the photo above, with a box of pastels in front. And below is the small pastel painting that came from that little field trip:

You don’t have to have a fancy easel or pastels, though, to paint or draw landscapes in the plain air. You can use just your journal and a pencil or pen if you like. If you want to branch out, you could take along watercolor pencils or even a small water color set.

I like using watercolor pencils when I take my journal on trips. They don’t take up a lot of room, and they add just a dash of color that livens things up. All you need to do is add a little bit of color with the pencil, then use an inexpensive brush and a dab of water to turn the pencil drawing into a painting. You can see that they look like ordinary colored pencils:

And you can use them that way, but if you add just a dab of water, they become watercolors. Here are some little sketches I did on a canoe trip using watercolor pencils: 

Sometimes I like to sketch inside a small box, called a "thumbnail" sketch. Something about keeping it confined to a small space makes it less intimidating. You might try dong some thumbnails to see if you enjoy it:

I also like to keep my journal landscapes simple. One trick I use is "tree doodles." I know we have spent some time drawing trees properly, but sometimes to sketch a landscape, it is good to step back from the details, and to keep the forms simple. Tree doodles help with that. Below is a sketch I made of a place you might recognize, Urbanovsky Park. I was sitting at a bench by the architecture building, looking across the street. You can see from the photo that the scene is actually quite busy looking. But what I focused on were the simple shapes of the hill (did you know it is the highest point in Lubbock? I'm not making that up) and the evergreens across the top. I drew this simple landscape using my tree doodles:

Finally, at some point you may want to experiment with the most traditional medium for plain air, oil paint. Here is a small painting I did at Lubbock Lake Landmark one winter day. Sandhill cranes were flying overhead and so I put them in the painting as well:

Notice that in all my plein air work, I strive to keep it simple. This is not like the "Where’s Waldo.” pen and ink drawing in the module about sketching what you see out your window, though I simplified things a bit there, too.

Looking at a landscape and figuring out what should stay and what should go so that you can show the essence is the key to good landscape painting, and a good metaphor for life. In my mind, nobody does this better than artist Marc Bohne. With his permission, I have reprinted a couple of his small oil on paper "sketches." Notice the extreme simplicity of the paintings, and yet, they are evocative. They have the power to move the viewer, and you get the feeling that the artist and the landscape had a connection. Marc Bohne does not paint plein air. Instead, he goes to a place and spends time looking at it, sometimes over a period of days. Then he paints it in his studio. In this way, it becomes more of a painting of a memory of a landscape--a very clear memory, but a memory nonetheless. What better way to distill something down to its essence?

This small painting below by Marc Bohne is one I actually own. I am not a wealthy person, but some time ago, I decided I wanted to spend some of my discretionary money collecting art that I love. This is one of those pieces, and it hangs on my living room wall. It reminds me of landscapes I saw in my New Mexico childhood. The blue ridge in the background is very like a view of the mountains I saw every morning. I can actually see myself out walking in it, exploring the world, skinned knees, cattywampus hair and all:

You could try sketching a landscape from memory, too. Go out for a walk, and if you find a place that speaks to you, stop and study it as long as you need to. Look for the shapes and colors that make it that particular landscape. Distill it in your mind to its essence. As I said above, a good metaphor for life.

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