Why plein air

If you can paint en plein air, you can paint anything else you can draw.
Teddi-Jann Covell, me, and Truth Hawk model appropriate gear for winter painting. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
In some of our coastal harbors, plein air painting approaches performance art. We spend more time answering questions than we do painting. For new painters, that can be unnerving. But Rockport is the least-visited, most-beautiful harbor on our section of coast. In Rockport in March, our only visitors are people eating sandwiches in their trucks, or the occasional dog-walker. That makes Rockport the perfect place to start the new painting season.
Finished paintings by students Mary Whitney and Teddi-Jann Covell. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
This post revolves around the photos; I wrote it largely for the amusement of my southern readers, who perhaps can’t conceive of painting in freezing weather. And yet it’s done regularly, not just here but in Vermontand upstate New York. My friends in Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters are already out testing the ice at Mendon Ponds. And they’re probably already out in Indiana and the Cascades and, for all I know, in Anchorage, AK, too. Plein airpainters merely tolerate indoor painting; our brush hands are happiest outdoors. It’s all about the right clothing and materials.
(By the way, while being physically fit makes plein air painting easier, physical disability is not an absolute barrier. I’ve had students with walkers in both my weekly classes and my annual workshop. We just select more accessible painting locations.)
Ed Buonvecchio with two pro tips: insulated LL Bean boots and his cap over his toque. You need a warm head and a sun visor in late winter. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
Like most art students, my painting education was skewed toward figure drawing and painting. I grew up thinking the human form was the apotheosis of painting. Since the Renaissance, the western art canon had a hierarchy of genres, which rated the importance of pictures as follows:
  1. History, including all that allegorical stuff;
  2. Portrait;
  3. Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
  4. Landscape;
  5. Animals;
  6. Still life.
Robert Lichtman doubled his hat too, but was able to paint bare-handed. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
If we were to draw up a modern hierarchy it would probably read:

  1. Abstraction (a big label including a lot of categories)
  2. Symbolism
  3. Surrealism
  4. Outsider art
  5. Representational art
  6. Plein air

Finished work by Colleen Lowe, Ed Buonvecchio and David Blanchard. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
And yet, having worked in most of the traditional categories, I think plein air is in fact the hardest form of painting. It requires the painter to pull one big concept out of a vast landscape, and stick with it. It teaches you to simplify, simplify, to focus your view, and narrow your goals.
Mary Whitney painting harbor ice. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
I have a current student who didn’t realize this would be primarily a plein air class when she signed up. I have no problems encouraging her to stay. When you master en plein air, you can then paint anything else that you can draw. The reverse is decidedly not true.
A note: For those of you who have been following the fortunes of the waterlogged dinghy in Rockport harbor, it was off its mooring yesterday. It may have dropped below the surface, but since the harbormaster is resetting the buoys for spring, I think she probably brought it in.

The winter doldrums

All painters should occasionally go somewhere else to paint, even if it’s just the next town over.
Snow squall at Twelve Corners, by Carol L. Douglas

It’s 3° F at my house. That’s positively balmy compared to other places in the north. It’s -13° in the Dakotas, -11° in Detroit, and so cold in Saranac Lake, NY that the National Weather Service refuses to speculate. This is what newscasters are breathlessly calling a polar vortex. It’s just our old friend winter, rebranded.

I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. I have antifreeze in my veins. The coldest weather I’ve ever painted in was -10°F. That was about twenty years ago, when I made the commitment that I’d paint outdoors six days a week for a whole year through. Sub-zero weather is a fact of life in Western New York, as are blizzards and wind-swept deluges in the warmer months. I painted through it all.
Path, by Carol L. Douglas
I came away from that year realizing two things. The first was that if you paint that much, you have to sell your work, if only to be able to afford more paint and canvases. That was the start of my consistent business practice.
More importantly, I didn’t need to do it again. Now I paint outdoors in the winter because I want to, not because I’ve got something to prove. That means I can set limits: no subzero weather, no gloomy days, and no howling winds. Snow paintings are best with sunlight.
One more thing I’ve only recently concluded: you can’t skimp on winter clothes. I’ve spent way too much time being cold because I was underdressed. That’s foolish.
Hayfield, Niagara County, NY, by Carol L. Douglas. The lumpiness in the paint is because it was so cold even my oils froze.
The painting above was done in a hayfield in Niagara County, NY. When I packed up to leave, I realized my van had a dead battery from the cold. Twenty years ago, I didn’t have a cell phone, so I trudged down the road to call my brother. “I was wondering what on earth you were doing there,” said the kind lady who answered the door. My brother just called me an idiot.
What do plein airartists do in the winter? Mostly, we paint indoors. All of us have ideas for studio paintings, commissions, etc., that need to be executed sometime. If we have any sense, we also rest. I haven’t done a good job of that this year; I’m scrambling to finish work before the season starts again.
Rock wall, by Carol L. Douglas. Winter means a lot of twilight in the north.
If we’re lucky, we sneak in a short trip South to paint, as I did last winter. This year, I’m being contrarian and flying west instead, to New Mexico (where it’s a balmy 25° and sunny today). Jane Chapin and I plan to paint some winter mountain scenes high above Santa Fe. Yes, we have mountains in the Northeast, but they’re a very different character.
All painters should occasionally go somewhere else to paint. It doesn’t have to be an expensive, extensive trip. If you live on the coastal plains, go to the hills. If you live in a town, go to the countryside. Even the smallest shift of viewpoint profits us. The land has a different shape, different focal points, different light, different masses. We stretch when we paint what’s outside our norm.
Suburban snowstorm, by Carol L. Douglas. Wherever there are trees and snow together, you can paint a landscape.
I leave Monday, weather permitting. I’m starting to pack my winter gear. But first, I must clear the driveway and bring in more wood. Ah, winter! You may be beautiful, but you’re also a lot of work.

All good things

It’s helpful when you can stay on the right side of the road. It wasn’t alway possible.

As I toured the Institute grounds, the first fat flakes started to fall. I’d been warned that a significant storm was expected at midday and would move in fast. I don’t have studded snow tires; I don’t even have snow tires. For a few minutes, I thought I’d left it for too late.

The first sign of the weather changing was the wind picking up.
 Still, Western New Yorkers are accustomed to snow. Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse have the highest snowfall of all American cities. Our storms are amplified by the open water of the Great Lakes.

Drift ice is among my favorite things.
Coastal Maine adds a fillip to the experience: a fine layer of ice under its snow. The first twelve miles of our trip was on back roads that wouldn’t see a salter or plow for a day or so. The Mainers might have been slithering sideways on the hills in their pickup trucks (which are notoriously bad on snow) but they were taking it in stride. So did my little Prius.

Snow-covered rocks off Blueberry Hill.
The northeast is having its second hard winter in a row. Very few people visit Maine in January, but it is beautiful. I no longer do much wintertime plein air work. Still, our world is lovely in the deep snow.

The open road doesn’t look too bad, does it? But there’s absolutely no traction and my poor little Prius was choosing its own route.
Ah, home sweet home…

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Just boats

Drydock at Genesee Yacht Club, 12X16, oil on canvasboard.
I’m sorry about the lack of a post yesterday; the collywobbles-sans-merci blew through my household this weekend. Sometimes when the limbs are still, the mind does its best work.
Last summer Howard Gallagher of Camden Falls Gallery took Lee Boynton and me out to see the start of the Camden feeder of the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. It’s the first time I’ve ever filled my entire 16-GB memory card and my cell phone with pictures. (I think Lee took about as many.) That day was one of the highlights of my summer.
Howe Point dinghy, 6X8, oil on canvasboard.
I love painting boats, and could spend my whole summer on the dock with them. You can’t paint them under sail en plein air, except as slashes of white against the sky; they move too fast for that. And I don’t generally paint from photos, so I shot pictures of them and contented myself with that. Anyway, my habit for the last decade or so has been to spend the summer painting en plein air and the winter doing figurative work in my studio. Usually that figurative work has an overlay of social commentary to it; I just can’t seem to help myself.
At Camden Harbor, 6X8, oil on canvasboard.
I returned to Rochester in September with a show penciled in for next March and a great concept. Nothing about this has worked out right. The gallery and I haven’t been able to reach terms. I haven’t been able to get the models on board. The model I started with suddenly developed cold feet (perhaps he needs warmer socks). My stretchers were backordered. Yada, yada.
Tide running out, 12X16, oil on canvasboard.
About a dozen times over the past few weeks I’ve muttered to myself, “I’d really rather be painting boats.” And then this weekend, twisting around in the damp embrace of my sheets, I asked myself, “Why aren’t you just painting boats? They make you happy, they make other people happy.” And I realized I have utterly no enthusiasm for this project that has proven so difficult.
At Camden, 12X16, oil on canvasboard.
So I’ve cancelled my spring show in Rochester, and I’m going to paint boats. Not social commentary, just sailboats.

Remember, you’ve got until December 31 to get an early-bird discount for next year’s Acadia workshop. Read all about it here, or download a brochure here