Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

En Plein Air — Pros and Cons

Friday, June 1st, 2018

I’ve been focusing on plein air the second quarter of this year.  But I know that plein air painting is not for everyone; nor is it the best option for all situations.   So, in case some of my readers are thinking about trying it, in this article I thought it might be good to enumerate some of the pros and cons of painting outdoors, as compared with working in a studio setting.

Whereas it’s lovely to work outdoors in beautiful, sunny weather (PRO), it’s safe to say that none of us live in an area that is comfortable all the time.  At one time or another, we all face uncomfortable environmental factors, which can feel exaggerated when we’re painting outdoors (CON).  Heat, cold, wind, precipitation, blowing dust or sand, dripping trees, and a variety of insect life can easily put a lid on an otherwise pleasurable outing or threaten the integrity of our work.  In cold weather, paint stiffens, water freezes, and our fingers, toes, and ears go numb.  In warmer weather, we may more likely be affected by sudden showers, wind gusts that can topple an easel, and insects that bombard us and become embedded in our work.  Yet, where else but outdoors do we have the opportunity to observe so closely or so directly the colors of our immediate environment under natural lighting conditions (PRO)?

Whereas a studio can provide both controlled climatic conditions, as well as controllable lighting conditions, the sun is a continuously moving light source, and scudding clouds can exacerbate the problem of rapidly changing shadow patterns (CON).  So wise painters discipline themselves (PRO) to preplan and follow compositional studies carefully to avoid “chasing the light” as the light-and-shadow patterns shift.

And although studio work, based on previously painted studies or photographs, can provide a broad choice of preselected views from a wide range of locations, working on site, en plein air, gives us flexibility to choose specific views, from an almost unlimited variety of angles, and both size and dimensions of the compositional field within the available locale (PRO).  We are also unconsciously more inclined to integrate non-visual sensual impressions from our environment into our work (PRO).  And although we cannot control the immediate climatic or lighting conditions within our locale (CON), painting on location does provide incentive to explore the same scene in a variety of lighting and atmospheric conditions (PRO) without limiting ourselves to some expected, idealized view.

Breaking away from studio reference photos also frees us to view an area in ways we haven’t previously considered and to interpret it “with new eyes”.  It gives us incentive to seek beauty even in the seemingly mundane or in elements of life that others might even consider ugly.  It stretches us spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually, and opens our hearts to quite literally see the world differently (PRO).

Working outdoors usually tends to limit our actual painting time (CON).  Both transporting and protecting our equipment and materials both enroute to the painting site and for our return takes time from our actual painting activity.  But, although we may feel pressured to work too quickly to produce our best work (CON), it does motivate us to work efficiently, from selecting our materials to transport, through preplanning our compositions, to executing the painting itself (PRO).

Passersby can further limit our time by stopping to talk with us and by offering “critiques” (sought or not) of the work in progress (CON).  But these same interruptions provide visibility and an opportunity to both gauge the public’s response to our work and to engage them in it to better understand it and appreciate our painting process (PRO).  It may even occasionally result in a sale (PRO).

And as well as engaging with the public, working en plein air, which is often done in a group with other painters, gives us the opportunity to exchange ideas with other like-minded artists, to share ideas, information, seek out knowledgeable feedback, and to build lasting friendships (PRO).

All artists should weigh these pros and cons to decide whether the plein-air option would be right for them.  If nothing else, it’s a refreshing excuse to get out into the world.

En Plein Air — Washington D.C.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Last time I wrote about my first plein air travel experience in Key West.  Another recent trip, this time to Washington D.C., provided additional impetus to try breaking away from working only in my studio.

I knew that the Japanese Cherry trees encircling the Tidal Basin had long since bloomed and lost their blush by the time we arrived in late April, but many other trees and shrubs were in glorious bloom.  Magnolia, dogwood, redbud, other fruit trees, wisteria, azaleas, and of course many spring bulbs provided an entire spectrum of springtime hues.  As I considered the various delicate colors scattered in hazy clusters across the landscape, I continually asked myself how I would mix this hue or that, how I could suggest a similar texture on paper, and how this subject or that should be effectively addressed.  But the paints remained only in my mind.

Springtime in DC

Springtime in DC

Segway and bus tours provided an interesting and informative overview of some of the prime sites in the city but offered limited time to take reference photos, and none for painting enroute.  Metros were efficient in getting us to where we wanted to go, but didn’t inspire me much with their views of their underground network—the station tunnels calling to mind a sterile shuttle bay on the fabled Starship Enterprise.

I did take the opportunity to enjoy the museums on my wish list—the  National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art (with a special exhibit of portraits by Cezanne), the Freer Gallery, and some of the other Smithsonian collections along the Mall—while my husband breezed through other museums of particular interest to him.  But beyond making a few quick pencil sketches, I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t accomplish much of my own work at all, either indoors or out.

View of 6th Street from the National Gallery of Art West

View of 6th Street from the National Gallery of Art West

Although I prefer to really absorb smaller, focused areas of interest, my husband likes to cover a lot of ground quickly, to see as much as possible in our limited time.  Guided tours, which he favors, don’t slow down to wait for much emotional or artistic contemplation—or sometimes even reference photos.  And they didn’t leave a lot of time for plein air painting until I was too exhausted to tackle it.   The experience taught me that if I truly want to paint, sometimes I will have to aggressively claim that time by foregoing other options or overriding others’ desire for my participation in their preferred activities.

The hectic pace did force me to sketch quickly, concentrating on a focal area with minimal detail, and building around that as time permitted.  I’ve found that simplification is the key to quick sketching, capturing line, gesture, balance, and a suggestion of key impressions.

Smithsonian Castle Skyline

Smithsonian Castle Skyline

So I’m making an effort to quickly visualize my compositions in terms of a limited focal area while eliminating or minimizing all but the critical balancing elements to create something of a vignette or silhouette as I sketch.  It’s a difficult transition to make from my more extended studio paintings, but I find that my early exposure to sumi-e has provided a valuable foundation for this approach.

En Plein Air — Key West

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

Spring and summer can be lovely times for painting outdoors, to try to capture a genuine feel of the natural world, out in the fresh air and sunshine. I have had a tendency to shun direct sunlight up to now, since my northern European heritage of pale skin and green eyes do not take kindly to the strong sun in my adopted state of Florida.  But I am determined to be more daring through the next several months.

In order to keep me from wimping out, I am committing here and now to blog this summer on at least some of my plein air experiences.  So stay tuned.

After a few local efforts, my plein air adventures seriously kicked off with an overnight trek in April to Key West, which gave me incentive to get out on my own to do some painting on location there.  I loaded up a backpack and set out to canvas the town.  What was I looking for?  A taste of the island’s unique flavor without relying on clichéd scenes.

My husband, a friend, and I headed down on the Key West Express—a 3½ hour catamaran trip from Fort Myers Beach. Arriving shortly after noon, we caught an Old Time Trolley to get a tour and quick overview of the entire island.  We hopped off briefly to drop our overnight gear off at our hotel, and then resumed the tour on a subsequent trolley to make our way back to Mallory Square for dinner and, eventually, the tropical sunset.  Clouds low against the horizon precluded any hope of our catching the fabled green flash, but there was plenty else to interest us.  All afternoon I had made note of particular areas to focus my attention for painting purposes on the following day.

The next morning we split up, the men to find their amusements, and I to seek my own.  While others queued up to take selfies at the Southernmost Point marker (which, ironically, isn’t really the southernmost point of the Continental US at all), I set up my easel to depict one of the lovely old guest houses in the neighborhood.

180411w "Dewey House," 10"x8" watercolor by Charlotte Mertz

“Dewey House” by Charlotte Mertz (10″x8″ watercolor, #180411w)

After lunch, I resumed my quest and decided that the lighthouse, which I had considered painting, offered unsatisfactory views and poor angles for what I wanted to do, so I jettisoned that idea and continued north on Whitehead Street to find a house whose front yard burgeoned with bouganvilla.  It proved a very pleasant subject on which to while away the afternoon.

Although neither painting was entirely satisfactory to me, I learned a lot from the experience.  I also made several pencil sketches and collected innumerable photos to use as reference material back home.

Characteristics of Place

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

The transition from winter to summer seemed very sudden for us in Florida this year.  One of the few natural clues in the past few weeks that we were experiencing “spring” was the dramatic fall of leaves from the live oaks after daytime temperatures rose suddenly from the 50s and 60s(F) into the mid-to-upper-80s within a week.

Unlike most deciduous trees, live oaks cling to their leaves through the fall and winter, releasing the small, drying leaves only as the new growth of spring leaves begins.  So, in conjunction with our winter temperatures largely mimicking summer temperatures in more northern regions, (and aside from the fact that we don’t get much of a cold reprieve for more than about a week, ever) sometimes it feels as though our seasons are a bit backward on the Florida peninsula.

Hanging Moss in Oak Park, by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" oil, #180207-o)

Hanging Moss in Oak Park, by Charlotte Mertz (8″x10″ oil, #180207-o)

It was a good reminder to teach my students to watch for the unique characteristics of not only the specific vegetation in the locales in which we paint, but other identifiable aspects typical of the region.  These may include rock and soil color and configurations, species of trees and shrubs in the area, wildlife native to the region, and architecture designed either to address climatic conditions or to incorporate notable regional cultural influences.

These regional differences are one of the reasons we travel – to recognize and experience both environmental and cultural differences from other areas we’ve known.  I believe, too, that it is one of the reasons plein air painting has become so popular in recent years.  Not only are the physical characteristics of a specific region different from those in other places, but the prevailing atmospheric conditions can be recognized, as well.  Artists often refer to it as “the quality of light.”

Atmosphere is influenced by a number of different factors.  These factors include level of humidity; active precipitation; prevailing winds; air pollution; mist, fog, or salt spray; type and depth of cloud coverage; the colors reflected from the earth’s surface onto the underside of clouds; and even altitude relative to sea level, which can affect the density of the air itself and the light’s refraction among any airborne particles.

As I write this blog, the air is heavy, dense with humidity.  Colors are less saturated, values are condensed into narrower bands of lights and darks than usual.  On days like this my grandmother would comment that the distant side of the lake on which she lived appeared particularly far away, whereas on clear, cloudless days she might say the far shore appeared especially close.  It is this kind of difference that, as an artist, I try to be aware of, to establish in my work a sense of the atmospheric conditions in a specific place.  It’s a lesson I mean to extend to my students.

 

Another Route to Explore

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

This past month my route of explorations took a more literal turn.  I was seeking out not new civilizations, but new landscapes, different qualities of light, and a variety of textural features.

Besides my usual goal of taking a bevy of photographs for future reference, my intention this time was to keep a travel journal of quick sketches to record some of the interesting physical features that caught my eye.  I knew that being on the guided tour we had lined up would preclude my claiming long stretches of time in which to paint at leisure.  But it would also challenge me to achieve accuracy and key visual impressions in a minimized time-frame—always a good exercise for an artist to undertake.

Would I also be able to capture, or at least suggest, some of my emotional impressions as well?  How well would the journal recall the story of our experiences?  I could only make the attempt and ascertain the answers after the fact.  So rather than taking a lot of equipment, I packed up a minimal art kit that could be stowed in a small shoulder bag or pieces of which could be tucked into pockets for opportune moments.  …

Despite all my good intentions, I discovered very quickly that it was unrealistic to expect to accomplish much more than very quick sketches, and even less realistic to take time to actually paint productively.

170505w  Sunset Lit Sedona

170505w Sunset Lit Sedona

I did manage to get a few sketches done while we were on our own, such as the sunset-lit Sedona mesa, above.  Once we joined the time-intensive Road Scholar tour, however, I found extremely few opportunities even for the briefest of sketches.  I tried some very quick pencil sketches during our hikes but then had to run to catch up with the rest of the herd. Nor did working on the tour bus work very well, as my hand bounced too much, and I feared dumping either water or paint on my traveling companions.  Ah well, I did give it the old college try.

Ultimately, I focused instead on shooting literally thousands of reference photos and maintaining a written journal, which included (among other things) color notes and conceptual ideas relating to the area and the culture of its inhabitants.

Despite the deterrents to painting on location, I was still able to closely observe the terrain, landforms, and their indicative color relationships, understand better their development and subsequent erosion patterns, and couple that with information about local flora and fauna and with an enhanced appreciation of the people who have not only struggled and survived but manage to thrive in that difficult environment. I trust that this added insight will benefit my work in the long run, leading it toward a greater level of maturity and expression.