Our First Plein Air Outing:From Wilson Street Studio Blog

  • I didn’t even know what painting "plein air" meant when we joined our first plein air class back in 2008. “En plein air”, painting in the open air. It sounds simple enough, however, it’s all very well to happily paint away in the comfort and security of our studio. It’s another thing to paint out of doors, where other people might be watching us. Talk about nerve wracking.

    So off we went to paint a semi-urban scene in the nearby village of Unionville. Even setting up we had spectators. “What are you doing?” Are you artists?” “See the nice man painting.” That’s all before I’ve put down the first brush stroke.

    Despite all this attention, I got set up and began to size up my composition. I’d always painted from my own photographs before, and I’m a pretty good photographer. I know how to crop and make a ho-hum scene something worthwhile to look at. So I was surprised at how foreign the scene in front of me felt.

    The objects, shapes, lines and colours all rioted in from of me. What to put down first? What was my focal point, where were the shapes a good painting depends upon? I was totally lost.

    After 60 minutes of chasing shapes and values around my board, I realized that I was getting nowhere. I had a representation of the scene in front of me, but not a painting. Not a piece of art, or even the beginnings of one. What to do?

    Bring out another board and begin again. Discipline. Painting is not simply representing the space in front of you. Look for the design within the mass in front of you. Squint at the scene to reduce it to the major shapes. Capture those shapes. What are generally the darkest bits, where are the lightest bits? Fill those in. Do it quickly because the sun is moving and the shadows changing.

    After a couple of hours of trying to simplify and capture the essence of the scene, I was finished. Much better than my original effort. However, something was still missing. Time to pack up, get back to the studio and discuss our day’s work with each other. Perhaps then we’d figure out where the painting fell short.


    My Ah Ha Moment

    When I looked over the work I did on my first plein air painting day, I was both troubled and excited. Troubled because I knew the work was falling short in some way. Excited because it was still more powerful than the work I’d been doing in the studio.

    Helen and I looked over our work and worried the pieces like a pair of dogs snarling over a bone. We picked apart technique, choice of cropping, even choice of topic. Was it my colour mixing? What about my values, my composition? What’s missing?

    This wasn’t a simple process, and we came to no quick answer. We spent the better part of a year talking over and arguing over the missing ‘element’. Almost every piece we painted during this time fell short of the promise it made. Our skills improved, but the solution seemed as far away as ever.

    Then one day, we asked a question we had asked before, what was in the original scene that spoke to you? What compelled you to paint this particular scene? While we had asked these questions of ourselves many times before, this time we realized that they weren’t simple, throwaway questions. They were central to the success and failure of a painting.

    When we paint something because it speaks to us, and we hold that call in our minds, the results are more charged with something ephemeral, yet vital that other works don’t have.

    We had our answer. We were translating the scene with our paintings. Hacking away the unimportant to get to the visceral core of the matter. Our goal became to have our paintings speak the same voice the scene used to spoke to us.


    Copied from Keith & Helen's art blog on their art website.

  • John Christie
    John Christie Well said Keith.

     I certainly remember my first plein air attempt.  I felt this rush of excitement to be actually painting a three dimensional scene while I had an emotional attachment to it instead of trying to rekindle the emotion while looking at a tw...  more
    April 14, 2012
  • Keith Thirgood
    Keith Thirgood The funny thing for Helen and me, we've both ended up teaching studio artists how to approach painting en plein air. We hadn't intended to, however, people watched us paint and asked us to teach them, then to teach at their groups, and on and on. We'll be...  more
    April 14, 2012
  • Christine Peltzer
    Christine Peltzer Love your blog and Helen's. I absolutely believe you have hit the nail on the head. The story's the thing. After that first burst you can go and do something else. It's when you get on location and nothing speaks to you that it is so hard to brush life in...  more
    June 1, 2012