Plein Air Is Not a Sport

Tiger Lilies, plein air watercolor sketch in Moleskine sketchbook.

Tiger Lilies, plein air watercolor sketch in Moleskine sketchbook.

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! 🙂


5 Responses to Plein Air Is Not a Sport

  1. I agree with you 100%. I didn’t even know they had conventions or painted in large groups like that. Is there anything that doesn’t get commercialized and overdone? I understand the appeal of Plein Air for people it’s just not for me. My home atmosphere inspires me as much as anything. When I’m comfortable I can concentrate on art. Most of my paintings aren’t realistic, they are the surreal and humorous things I see in my head. I do love getting ideas and looking at all the nuances in nature, I just don’t want to be too hot or too cold, have high winds, rain when I’m painting…lol. I’m just talking about for me…(-:
    Now I love looking at other artists Plein Air work and very much admire them. I also love to just mix up my colors as I go like you were talking about. I don’t think I’ve ever done a color chart. I’ve studied them a lot though.

    Love all your art!!! Thanks for sharing!

  2. kullaf says:

    Thank you Sherry! Plein air is not for everyone, there is nothing wrong with studio painting. I encourage my students who don’t like to work outdoors to set up small, simple still lifes to work from. Working from direct observation is the best way to improve drawing and painting skills. As for color mixing, I have a limited palette of about 6 colors plus white (2 of each primary) and sometimes I’ll use an earth color. I first study the color I see and think about the mood I want to achieve with the painting, from there I logically choose the colors on my palette that will best mix together to create the color that will work best in the context of the painting.

  3. bogart says:

    I have actually thought about this for a few days now….whether it is better to paint solo or with some folks. I think for me I know painting is a solo event….and yet I think there is some insecurities associated with painting outside that I thought a group painting together could help. Mainly access to spots in town and people not bugging you to death…..kind of like circling the wagons in the west. Truth is the more I do it the less I care about the above. A baseball hat and an ipod seem to keep people at bay.

  4. kullaf says:

    Dave, I am with other artists so much because of all my teaching that a day of painting with no one around is pure joy for me! Occasionally painting with one or 2 people is fine, especially out here in the gorge or other wooded areas where it’s kind of nice to have another person you know within walking distance in case of emergency (cell phone coverage is not all that great in many spots out here). I’m referring more to the photo I saw of at least 100+ painters all painting at the big convention out west. That looked absolutely surreal and strange to me! Sort of defeating the entire purpose of why I paint plein air. I also agree with you that the more you do it, the less you care about keeping people who are curious at bay. I turn the tables and go into demo mode explaining exactly what I’m doing, etc. They either get bored and leave, or some sign up for my classes or workshops, or check out the work I have in galleries. Have some cards around with your web site, you might end up with some new customers. 😉

  5. Preston says:

    Actually, I DO see plein air as a sport for exactly the reasons outlined above. I equate it to sport hunting. Sure, game sportsmen enjoy coming home with the big “trophy” (whether deer or bass) but some do it strictly for the enjoyment of being in nature. Many speak of hunting in terms of “meditative”…. much as I do when speaking of plein air painting. One of my most memorable plein air outings was with a fisherman friend who ventured out onto the pond while I stayed on the bank and painted. And yes, we both came home with “keepers.”

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