I’m sure that somewhere someone has defined to the nth what constitutes plein-air painting and what’s sketching, but unless you’re in a plein-air competition, does it matter? I’m reminded of that Monet quote:
“Whether my cathedral views, my views of London and other canvases are painted from life or not is nobody?s business and of no importance whatsoever.”*
“On-location information gathering” is rather more of a mouthful than “plein-air painting”, but it’s a more accurate description of what I’m thinking and doing. The enjoyment of sitting outside, the potential of some paint and paper, the slowing down to look and to translate to paper, that’s what is most important for me. It’s simultaneously stimulating and relaxing.
I’m not focused on end results (though getting a piece I like is indeed satisfying) nor on getting everything into one perfect painting. It’s about slowing down to focus on the moment and a slice of whatever place I’m in, spending time looking and enjoying and selecting and mark making and playing with colour (or sometimes monochrome). Sometimes I call it painting, sometimes sketching, sometimes drawing. Sometimes I call it taking my sketchbook for a walk. Mostly I just call it having fun.
What do I use? At the moment it’s A3 watercolour paper (350gsm) carried in a plastic folder that’s vaguely showerproof, a couple of big clips to stop a sheet from flapping in the wind (there are usually rocks to hold it down if I put it to one side while it’s still wet), my biggest watercolour set (because I’m enjoying all the colours and learning their properties), a pencil box with acrylic inks (Payne’s grey and white are a constant, the other colours vary but often a green or yellow) and a few coloured pencils. Plus a bottle with water, a container with a lid for brush water, a flat brush and a rigger that fit into the watercolour set, paper towel, and ginger biscuits.
Knowing when to stop isn’t only an in-studio problem. I really liked this painting once I added the sea and nearly stopped at this point. But because it’s a point at which I often stop, I decided to push past it and add colour.
This is where I ended up. And, no, I don’t like it as much, but I am still pleased I pursued it (because if you always stop at the same point, things never develop) and it’s generated ideas for next time.
*Quoted in: Monet’s Years at Giverny, Metropolitan Museum of Art, p28