Have you noticed all the hype that has been created around plein air painting over the past couple years? It seems as if there are more competitions, more hobbyists, more plein air groups, and even a convention! What is it about plein air painting that has become such an obsession with so many people, many of whom have likely never picked up a brush before?
I think for many (and this is only my opinion), there is a romantic appeal about setting up an easel and painting outside among nature the way the Impressionists did. It’s a chance to be like Monet for lack of a better way of putting it. One article even went so far as to describe it as “the plein air lifestyle”.
OK, well buying an expensive outdoor easel and painting alongside a hundred or more other artists all jockeying for position in the same location is not my idea of what plein air is all about. I think there needs to be more emphasis on the solitude and peace an artist can get from being ALONE and painting in a quiet (or not so quiet) place–truly observing their surroundings and improving their ability to see. So much of that is lost when plein air becomes all about competition and sport. I have only participated in one or two professional plein air events, and while well organized and run, I’ve left each with an uneasy feeling that this just isn’t the way to become a better artist.
Painting is not about how many awards you’ve won, how many competitions you’ve been in or how many DVD’s you’ve sold. It’s about becoming a better artist. The best way to become a better artist is to compete only with yourself–constantly challenge yourself to do the best work you are capable of, recognize your strengths and address your weak points. You can only do that through consistent practice without pressure. Watching DVDs will not make you a better painter, drawing and painting from direct observation will make you a better painter. Mixing colors on your palette in a real life situation is far more useful than mixing a hundred color charts in your studio.
So if the idea of painting outdoors appeals to you, by all means give it a try. But start out simply, with a sketchbook and some watercolors or even just pen and ink or charcoal. Really learn to see, pay attention to composition and the overall design of the landscape. Learn to really understand “how perspective works” so that you are in control of the depth and space in your painting. Mix colors using a limited palette so that you truly understand each shade and its nuances. Leave behind the expensive easels, umbrellas, and other stuff that you don’t really need when you’re just starting out (or when you’re more experienced for that matter, a stick of charcoal and a sheet of paper are all you need to make a nice drawing). Go outside and paint, it’s free…and dare I say it…it’s fun! 🙂