Monson Arts Council logotype

3. Why are You Out There?

Posted in:

Reasons to Paint Direct from Nature

Enough art history. We want to get out in the world ourselves and join the fun.  But it is not a bad idea to know why you are doing it, because there are a number of good reasons to put yourself to the extra trouble of leaving the comfort of your studio. I’m sure you could come up with a number of them yourselves. Painting at Bob Masla’s Casa de Los Artistas in Mexico might add a few more.

I think many artists get out in nature because for the last 150 years it has been “the thing to do”.  It is now a tradition in its own right, and thus a worthy step in our own personal journey into landscape painting.  Each of us probably has particular favorite plein air painters whose work we admire, and whom we would wish to emulate.

A related reason is that direct study from nature is an excellent exercise in eye-training, and in selecting what you need from the overwhelming abundance of information in nature.  Simply learning to “see possibilities” in a natural scene takes practice.  Choosing where to look and what to include may be the most important decisions you will make in your process.

Bob Masla and daughter sketching
Peter Barnett Maslas Sketching

 “Being outside” ranks right up there with the best reasons to paint outdoors. This is a side benefit that it shares with the game of golf; while doing your thing, you are also absorbing the sunlight, sounds and smells of the world. I often make the decision to set up beside a murmuring brook for an hour of “music therapy”. If the painting is a failure, you are still way ahead.

The social aspect of painting outdoors with friends is a major plus for artists who would otherwise be isolated in their studio.  There is a camaraderie in a painting group, combined with a cross-pollination of artistic ideas.  A related activity is taking a plein air workshop with an experienced instructor.  I spent a week in Mexico with Bob Masla, an Ashfield MA artist whose winter digs are on the Pacific coast of Mexico at Boca de Tomatlan.  I was the sole participant in a workshop in Boca, so I had full control of where we went to paint!

Students among Hydrangeas
Workshop, Seal Cove Maine

The last two reasons for painting from nature are related, and are the most important ones for me.  First, I am fascinated by the effects of light.  This fascination extends to portraits and still lives as well, but is given the fullest expression in the natural world. Sunlight, skylight, ambient light, reflected light, the kaleidoscope is endless and everchanging.  You will do no more than scratch the surface of it in a full plein air career.

Painting at Saranac Lake
Peter Barnett, Saranac Light Show

Finally, I have discovered that for me the enterprise of drawing or painting is a search for truth and freshness.  I want to capture what I see in front of me with fidelity to the light, color and mood of that moment in that place.  I truly believe that while I am constantly selecting from the incredible wealth of visual information in front of me, I am NOT inventing.  Though I may remove an element that is distracting or out of place, I never add one.  It is my firm belief that nature has everything you need for your picture, you just need to see it and select it.

Therefore, my ultimate measure of success is not the composition, the beauty of lines, the clear expression of mood.  If I am successful I will say “THAT’S IT!  That’s the way the light and color were at that moment, just like that!”


2 responses to “3. Why are You Out There?”

  1. Tara Hengeveld says:

    Peter, this is marvelous! Thank you for articulating this philosophy of Plein Air painting. I struggle with selecting the elements of the landscape that “speak to me” while recreating the lighting and creating the emotion of the scene. Although I could not attend this past Tuesday’s meeting and will miss next Tuesday’s meeting, I have been doing some plein air painting; sometimes with pleasing results. I look forward to joining the group on September 6th.

  2. Chris Mertens says:

    I am not an artist, but do appreciate and love admiring the work of artists. Thank you for Plein Air . Enjoyed this post so much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Return to posts
Monson Arts Council