Plein Air Painting: Joyful Creating Outside

When I was first approached about doing a “plein air” painting session with my friend, Barb, I have to admit that my first reaction was “Oh, no. I’ve never done that. Can I do that and look like I know what I am doing?”

Thank goodness I didn’t say that out loud. As usual, my fears were unfounded. My mind has a tricky way of saying “stop” before “go”. I think it’s a human thing, actually. I believe lots of us are more afraid of looking foolish than almost anything else in life.

“Plein air” is a French expression that means “in the open air”. Although painters have painted outside for centuries, plein air became more popular with art movements like Impressionism where it was important to catch the natural light. By the 1870s, paint started being available in transportable tubes – until then, artists (or their assistants) ground dry pigment and mixed it with linseed oil to create paint, a tedious and exacting process.

One of the things that enticed me to say yes to the experience (and it didn’t take long) was knowing that I would be part of a long history of plein air painters (including some of my favourites: Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Van Gogh) who have painted outdoors. The clincher was that I would be painting in a place that in itself was beyond beautiful: Lake O’Hara.

Day One: overcoming intimidation

Lake O’Hara is also a favourite spot for modern and famous painters. I have seen many paintings by Canadian greats Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald (of the Group of Seven fame) capturing the beauty of the Lake O’Hara area.

As we set up the first day we arrived, I had to consciously push back those thoughts that niggled in my mind: “What will you have to add here?” In fact, Barb kept insisting it was just about having fun with paint, mucking and exploring, and not being tied to the outcome. She also said quite seriously, “You may have picked the most difficult place to start your plein air painting experience, as it is SO beautiful here.” Oddly, that made me feel better.

But, as I struck up my easel, the excitement mounted. We gathered water from the lake to keep our acrylics wet, we used our view finders to see what inspired us and how we could translate it to canvas, we laid out the paper towels, donned the aprons, pulled on our baseball caps, and begun.

As my stomach unclenched and I zoned into that spot where I disappear when creating, I began to really enjoy myself. We saw different birds, heard the wind whistle to break the quiet, had a few hikers pass by to see what we were doing, and generally eased into the gorgeous scenery that surrounded us. Heaven.

My first painting is not one I will show, but I will definitely keep it as a reminder of the very first time I painted outside. I learned a ton that first day, which can be summed up with one word: Simplify, simplify, simplify! (It bears repeating.)

Day Two: the rain makes acrylics into oils

The second day, I was antsy to get going. I had gone to sleep thinking about what I would tackle the next day and worked all night painting in my dreams. I was ready. No fear, just anticipation.

The rains drizzled stronger the second day, so we found our painting spot – cabin 10 along the shore of the lake was not occupied, so we could set up on the deck and stay (mostly) dry. We took a walk around the lake before beginning and were treated to stunning views and reflections on the water.

Back at the cabin, we began to paint. The hours wore on, and the gong called us to lunch. We left our paintings on the deck, and came back an hour later to find that the acrylics (which normally dry within a half hour or less) were still VERY wet. There was so much water in the air, the paints were not drying at all, even after hours waiting! Although I have never painted with oil paints, Barb tells me this is what it is like. Definitely a new experience for me.

This day went better, and I completed two canvases and one watercolor sketch in the 4-5 hours we were there. These I was happier with. They were still “studies” rather than finished paintings, but I knew I got something down that I would not be embarrassed to show (if asked).

Day Three: flying with color

A strange thing happened on the third day. Despite the grey and overcast day, I squeezed out a bunch of bright colors on my palette. Maybe it was just sitting in the drizzly rain for a couple days, or maybe it was the fact that when the sun did peek out behind the clouds, the colours on the wet landscape were brilliant. But, whatever it was, it was like someone else was painting.

I am a bit of a careful painter. You can be that way when you are in the studio. Everything is carefully controlled to your liking: the light, the heat, your supplies all lined up…you have music or podcasts, and food, and voila! The perfect environment to create. You have oodles of time…days, weeks to finish something.

Plein air painting is a bit chaotic. You don’t necessarily have level ground, no table to put your supplies and brushes on. The sun comes out, then is gone. The lake is brilliantly smooth, then the wind makes it look like cheesecloth. The rain splatters your canvas, and bugs stick to your paint. You have only a few hours to get the impressions on the canvas, and working fast has not necessarily been my forte to date.

So, the last day, painting Mount Huber, I worked like a woman possessed. Sketching with paint (no under drawing; no time), and throwing on color. Changing shapes, adding others. When I finally stepped back after about an hour I was so surprised to see something almost abstract on my canvas and my first thought was: “Where the heck did that come from?” My second thought was: “It’s not really me, but I like it!”

You see, I had learned to relax, and really have fun. Paint from my gut instead of my head. Kick the control thing, and just create.

The whole time spent following in the footsteps of those very much better than me was no longer scary, it was a privilege. And, the best part was I could finally claim the title – whatever the result on canvas was – of plein air painter.

Odaray Mountain Through the Trees – The Painting

Odaray Mountain – The Inspiration

Mount Huber Celebration

Cathedral Mountain (Watercolor Sketch)

Cathedral Mountain Hiding – The Painting

Cathedral Mountain – The Inspiration


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