En Plein Air — Pros and Cons

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.

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

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.

Intuition and Preplanning

April 15th, 2018

While pointing out to my class how certain design principles are exemplified in master paintings, one of my students asked if the artists had actually thought about all of these principles as they planned the paintings.

I assured her that, although an artist will think consciously about certain aspects of a composition, so many of the principles will have become ingrained through experience that the design principles will have become second nature—an extension of the artists intuitive aesthetic sense.

Do we consciously plan the location of the focal point?  Perhaps.  But just as likely is that, we place it because a specific location appeals to our intuitive aesthetic.  It looks right, and feels right to us.  Similarly, a sense of tension and dynamic balance is often initially based on a “gut feel” at least as much as on conscious planning, although taking time to evaluate a painting in progress will often reveal to us how we may consciously improve the effect.

Yes, we consciously select our palette colors, but our experience with having used these colors in the past informs our decision about which specific paints to use with which others.  We have learned which pairings work effectively together to create the effects we want, so we don’t become bogged down in selecting which of our many options we will use from each hue family.

We often hear people say, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”  They are speaking of their intuitive aesthetic—innate but uninformed preferences.

As we learn more about the principles of artistic design, we begin to learn why we find certainly features preferable.  And this, in turn, allows us to incorporate those principles into our work to increase its effectiveness and appeal.

Most of us, especially so-called “self-taught” artists, frequently glean information and ideas from many other artists—both contemporaries and those who have preceded us.  But the chances are that we may miss (or misconstrue) many of the principles that could be helpful to us.  Whether we have a formal art education or have learned from various sources over time, it is in our best interest to continue learning as much as possible in relation to our artistic pursuits.

As we gain both understanding and experience, our intuition gradually gives way to subconscious decision-making based on our experience and informed options.  Yes, we initially make some conscious decisions about the painting’s purpose, materials, size, and palette.  We consciously plan a design and approach.  But once the initial planning stage is complete, it frees us to get into “the zone,” in which we make fewer conscious decisions and allow our subconscious intuition direct most of our remaining choices.

You can find a concise overview of many of the principles of artistic composition, in my ebook Elements of Great Composition: A Quick Reference for Photographers and Other Visual Artists.

Elements of Great Composition

“But why?”

April 1st, 2018

April fools?  In my opinion, fools are those who never bother to ask “Why?”

"Why?"  by Charlotte Mertz (watercolor 5"x7," #180306w)

“Why?” by Charlotte Mertz (watercolor 5″x7,” #180306w)

If you have ever spent much time with a three-year-old, you will probably have heard a chorus of “Why?” questions. Each answer or explanation only invites an additional “Why?” which in turn is followed by another, often so incessantly that an exasperated parent may finally fall back on one of the old standbys, “Because that’s just the way it is,” or “Because I said so!”

St. Paul wrote (I Cor. 13:11) “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”  But one of the things we often do as we leave childhood is to lose our childlike sense of wonder and inquisitiveness, as well. As adults, we may have accepted the say-so of perceived authority figures—parents, teachers, officials, celebrities, and even our peers—to such an extent that we no longer ask them or ourselves, “Why?”

We learn by being inquisitive.  As adults, it is important to understand the how’s and why’s of life.  As artists, we need to revitalize that sense of wonder and curiosity, to more often ask “Why?”

Why, for instance, is it preferable to paint wet into wet in some situations, while at other times wet on dry application might be better?  Why does the paint respond differently to these techniques?  Why does the dry-brush technique work with some brushes but not so well with others, and on some papers but not on others?  Why does watercolor paper behave the way it does?  Why does the paint move on the surface (or soak in) the way it does?  Why do different pigments behave differently from one another?  Why do some lift off the surface of the paper but others do not?

And again, why does an object reflect so many colors that are different from the “local color” most people would use to describe it?  Why aren’t shadows all black?  Why is the color of sunlight different at various times of the day?

Finding the answers to all these “why’s” and many others will help us find satisfactory answers to the dilemmas we face in every painting we undertake.  Knowing the cause of certain behaviors allows us to either avoid them or better depict or utilize them to greater advantage in our work.

Sometimes the best way to answer “Why?” is to seek out the answers through trial and error or simply by closer observation.  Do you take time to play, experiment, test theories, explore possibilities, and simply observe?  If not, why not?  And why not start now?