The struggles of Plein Air Painting are real!
I recently realized that studio painting feels like jogging. Maybe even walking. You can take your time without caring about the sun changing, rain, wind, portability, etc.
But plein air painting feels like a race! It’s thrilling, it’s messy, and you have to make QUICK decisions.
When I’m outside I am simply overwhelmed by choice. So it’s even more important to take what I have learned in the studio and keep it at the forefront of my mind so I can make quick, empowered decisions.
I recently experienced a string of failed plein air paintings that got me really fuming. I learned something, so they weren’t total failures, but the results are hideous in my mind.
So, I really had to step back and find out why I was struggling so much and how I could move on.
What it came down to is that I had been second-guessing myself constantly throughout the paintings, which would be fine if I wasn’t under the time pressure that comes with plein air painting.
I was consistently making bad decisions - whether it was value or color - and instead of stopping and slowing down to really think about it, I just continued slapping paint on the canvas under the pressure of the clock.
Then something magical happened. I was camping and looking forward to getting lots of plein air painting done, but alas, it poured for 24 hours straight. I decided to paint from within the car, at a scenic overlook.
What Did Painting in my Car Teach Me?
Suddenly - it was like a mixture of being in the studio and outside - there was the pressure of time, but not quite to the extent that there usually is. Afterall, the rain was not letting up, so the lighting never changed!
We spent an hour in that spot, and I had an elevated awareness of my decision making. What would normally be rushed was now slightly relaxed (just slightly). I could take a little longer mixing colors, and carefully applying textural brush strokes.
I thought back to the last time I felt that confident in my brush strokes and color mixing while painting outside. Sadly, it had been far too long… exactly one year ago.
So what happened between then and now?
My theory is that I’ve learned a LOT within the past year, and that increased awareness means I have even more choice. Choices in materials, markmaking, color awareness, etc. So many choices that I can’t seem to decide what to do in the limited time available in a typical plein air painting session.
Why More is Less
It reminds me of this book “The Paradox of Choice - Why More is Less” by Barry Schwartz, which discusses the concept that ‘eliminating consumer choice will greatly reduce anxiety in shoppers.’
This is an idea I’ve always been aware of, if not only from the commercial side of things. When I used to do wedding photography, I realized that my clients were more happy overall when I gave them 200-300 images versus 1000 images. A carefully curated selection of the most precious and beautiful moments makes a much more powerful impact than 1000 frame-by-frame photos of every single moment of the day.
So bringing this idea back to my painting seemed like a good experiment. What if I only allow myself to make a few decisions within a painting, and let the rest happen intuitively.
I am setting up an an experiment to test this theory.
I force myself to choose a spot within the first 15 minutes of my hike (something that I can drag out of almost an hour).
Use a limitted color palette - something I’m already doing. Great.
Start off with a fast sketch with a dark pigment to capture the forms - no more than 5 minutes.
Paint in the light. Now this doesn’t mean all my precious light bits will be totally finished from the beginning - but even just dropping in big chunks of the lighter areas first will help determine the light for the whole painting in case the sun hides behind a cloud.
One of the biggest mistakes plein air painters make (myself included) is changing the light in the painting as the light changes in the landscape (like if the sun goes behind the clouds). So, with this step, whatever happens in the first 5 minutes of the painting is how the rest will be painted.
Drop in bigger chunks of color to fill the canvas. Often times I get carried away with details from the start of the painting, and I barely cover the canvas before I have to pack up. One way I can do this step is to use a bigger brush to start - something I’ve experiment with for my gouache studies and it works really well!
So my goal this month is to try all of these things and see how much of a difference it makes.