Painting Outside! AKA "En Plein Air"

With spring not far off, several of our studio artists offered to share their thoughts about painting outside. See what Colleen Cosgrove, Katharine Gotham and Tom McGregor have  to say about painting outside, along with some examples of their en plein air work, below.

1. What draws you to painting en plein air?

Colleen Cosgrove: Plein air is a great exercise in working quickly, efficiently, and learning to capture only the important parts of a composition. Every outdoor painting session is also a memorable immersion in a unique environment and an opportunity to connect with nature, wildlife, changing weather, and curious onlookers.

"Right after I snapped this photo, a black bear ran up about 50 yards away.  I packed up my gear in record time that day!”

"Bear Country," Colleen Cosgrove.

Katharine Gotham: Initially what drew me to plein air was the simple joy of working outside. Having been confined to a dusty studio as a ceramic artist for many years, I was delighted to be able to roam around in nature and paint wherever I pleased.

As my experience with plein air grew, so did my appreciation of natural places deepen. There is something that transforms a person when you stand and carefully observe nature for hours. So few people really take the time to study the natural world the way painters do--perhaps fishermen, but not many others.

As our environment changes in sometimes alarming ways, I feel I have a responsibility to not only paint
    what I see in the natural world today--in this moment  as a record of this time--but also to paint what I feel for future generations.

(Above) Nesting Place,” Katharine Gotham

Tom McGregor: I did art outside en plein air only sporadically until around 1996, when I met my wife. We loved to go outside just to be in nature. Drawing or painting what we saw was a great tool to help us remember, but it was secondary to just being there.

2. How does painting en plein air affect your painting, as compared to painting in the studio?

Colleen Cosgrove: When I'm working outdoors I have a limited amount of time to capture the subject, which forces me to make quick decisions, trust my instincts as an artist, and not over-work the painting. It's a much more focused and intense experience than painting in
 the studio.

Katharine Gotham:
  Painting en plein air really fast-tracks your understanding of light!  The light is constantly moving and changing outside, so you need to work fast to fix a light effect, but then once it's gone, hold it in your memory to complete the painting.  

Untitled, Katharine Gotham (Right)

Tom McGregor: The best plein air painters rarely paint exactly what they see. They exaggerate colors, they leave out distracting details, and basically capture the moment when the light is just right. They have to either anticipate or remember the desired light effect. You have to ask yourself, “What’s the goal? To accurately render what’s in front of you? Or is it to paint something that captures how you felt at the time you were moved emotionally by a particular scene?”

Working in the studio offers me an opportunity to spend more time with ideas since I am not rushed to get something on canvas before the light changes everything.

To share a studio space with a group of artists has been very good for me. I find myself going to the studio to paint far more often than I did when I had my solo studio. I find that I may love to paint from my imagination almost as much as I did as a small child. I think what I love even more than that is being around artists that are actively pursuing their art form, constantly improving, encouraging one another, as they put in the time and brush mileage.

3. What is it like to participate in competitions?

Colleen Cosgrove: The challenge is to not worry about the judging, but just to do your personal best and appreciate the camaraderie of other artists.

Katharine Gotham: I am still a newcomer to painting in competitions. The first one I did scared me to death because I was trying to keep up with some very experienced en plein air painters. I soon realized that there aren’t any short cuts for me on improving. It's putting on the brush "miles" and focusing on doing a better body of work with each competition. Now that I've focused more inward instead of trying to keep up with the superstars, I am more relaxed during competitions and do find my work continuing to improve.

Tom McGregor: Painting plein air events and competitions is a great way to meet people who become lifelong friends, who share your passion, give encouragement, offer tips, discuss their techniques, and relate stories of adversity and discovery.

There’s nothing like a plein air competition to up your game. I frequently paint two or three 
paintings a day, usually side by side with other artists.  
There are as many ways to approach a subject as there are painters. There is always something new to learn.

(Right) "Ancient Forces," Tom McGregor

4. What advice would you give artists or aspiring artists who are curious about painting en plein air?

Colleen Cosgrove: Try it! Prepare to be frustrated, and don't expect to have a successful painting every time, but look at it as an exercise that will enhance your studio painting.

 Katharine Gotham: My first bit of advice would be to find a teacher to help you get started with at least the basics. My second piece of advice would be to find a painting buddy and make a plan to get out there. I really like having a painting buddy. They hold you to showing up at a certain time and place instead of the classic "I'll go later" or "I don't know what to paint". The important thing is to just get out there. Plein air painting can be hard--consider just getting out there, setting up your easel and paints, and studying nature an achievement in itself. 
(Above)  Sign for Five Mile Road,” 
Katharine Gotham

Tom McGregor: To me, plein air and studio painting are like a pair of gloves: you have to have both to truly express yourself in a meaningful way.

(Right) "Daybreak on George Street," Tom McGregor


Popular Posts