Monday Motivator: The Purpose of Plein-Air Painting

“Remember, the purpose of working en plein air is to learn to see better – to note value [tone] relationships and colour nuances that you only can only see when painting from life. It’s wonderful to be able to bring this knowledge into your studio practice. Painting en plein air is also about the experience of being in the moment in your painting environment. What it’s not about is a brilliant result! Nice by-product but not the purpose of painting en plein air.”

Gail Sibley, Packing for a Plein Air Trip to PACE

Plein-air isn’t only about landscapes or cityscapes. It could be a drawing of your mug in a coffee shop, the chairs in a waiting room, the inside of a building, a flower pot … it’s anything and everything that’s not in your “comfort art-making spot”.

Why do it? For me it deepens what I notice about somewhere, slows my brain’s running about and focuses that energy into creating something on a page. I get to listen to the birds and bugs and sea. The results vary from intensely pleasing to uh-oh, usually somewhere inbetween. Even if everything I paint is a dud, it’s not like that doesn’t happen in my studio on occasion.

What am I aiming for when I’m painting on location? It varies, depending on what I feel like, what else I’ve been doing, and if it’s a new spot or a regular one. Sometimes I focus on a small detail in a landscape, sometimes it’s the overall scene. To paint a sense of it, not a photographic likeness. To explore pattern and texture, shape and colour. Shape conveyed by line done in ink or fluid watercolour (whereas in my studio I’ll “colour in” the shapes).

Tone or light/dark is rarely a focus for me until mid-way in a painting. I know it’s something I don’t see strongly, instead I get seduced by colour and texture, so I have learnt to stop to assess and adjust it rather than fight against this natural inclination. On location, I often don’t bother because I’m having to much fun in the moment.

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