The Plein Air Attraction

Reflections on an Artistic Journey

Besides the actual art, what is it about plein air painting that attract so many artists? Most of us would probably agree that it is all about the light, coupled with atmosphere and a certain peace of mind. As I see it, most people are drawn to light; it fills our very beings, when we are out in nature especially. Think for a moment, about one of your fondest memories in the field, and I would bet you have feelings of warmth; of the sun shining on your face, with a soft breeze and calmness in the air. On another level, it’s almost as much a place of mind as it is a physical location. I see my time in the field not only as a way to create artistically, but as a means to commune with nature and find solace in a troubled world. This solace is key to finding peace, and a centeredness that satisfies the artist inside. I think, as a group, plein air painters enjoy the pleasure of the moment, so to speak. We savor our environment on a deeper level than most; it’s who we are.

A few years ago, while on a trip to Ventura, California to see family, I needed to make a stop in Carmel for some gallery business. I decided that a trip up Highway 1 was in order and made sure to pack my paints for the journey. On the way up, I passed through some amazing country along the coast of Big Sur, where my family had stopped to camp in my teen years, back in the ’60s. It was the perfect day, the tide was low and the rock formations and tide pools, bathed in the misty air of that afternoon autumn day, were outstanding. I made several stops along the way to take out my paints and savor the beauty that was everywhere. Needless to say, it took me a while to get to Carmel; I camped one night beneath the giant redwoods just as we had done years before. Morning was even more spectacular, and the experience was so wonderful I could hardly stand the thought of getting back to the real world again. As I stopped to work along the coast, I felt a peace that was poetic in nature and would be hard to describe to anyone who isn’t familiar with the plein air experience. You know what I am saying, this was something that was enjoyed by all five senses, and it was not only the physical presence of the light and air, but it was an experience of smell, taste, hearing and touch; add to that a sort of spiritual awakening and you have it. I think in some ways, this type of journey is the glue that holds plein air painters together in a sort of brother/sisterhood that is unique to our sub culture.

I have noticed that, as a group, we tend not to dwell too long on the negative. We share a passion for art and nature and enjoy each others’ company on paint-outs, and any time we can get together to talk art. There isn’t a lot of competition either, and for the most part we share our knowledge and experience with our friends freely.

I sometimes head out early in the morning with a painting destination in mind, passing over roads and freeways with the rest of the rush hour traffic, heading to my “office of choice” while feeling sorry for those who don’t get to glory in this unique experience. Those of us who paint in nature have it good, there’s no doubt about it! The boss is friendly, the office has ambiance, the breaks are unscheduled and the hours are dictated only by how long the desired ratio of light and shadow will last at any particular site; who could ask for more? The old song “Free Bird” by Lenard Skynard comes to mind.

In the bustle of modern life, so many people are caught up in the rush and din, that they hardly take a moment to enjoy the beauty that surrounds them. It’s an easy negative spiral to get into. Life becomes so hectic that one can often let cares and worries overshadow the necessity to commune in a positive way with the natural world. Since I can remember, I’ve always felt the desire to go to that peaceful place in my mind or in nature, that carefree Walden Pond environment where the world can be shut out. Of course this way of doing things came with its own set of punishments; I spent some time in elementary school being scolded for daydreaming by the Nuns at the New York parochial school I attended when I should have been paying attention to the lesson de jour. It wasn’t until years later that I realized my behavior was just part of being an artist at heart. In a sense, I was doing my job and they didn’t get it.

Fortunately, over the years, like many other artists, I have learned how to straddle the divide between both worlds; living on the left and right side of the brain in a world designed mostly for left-sided thinkers. I’m sure that this is a shared experience that most of my readers will relate to in their own personal way. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade my artistic journey for anything!

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