There's a lot of folks out there in art land waxing poetic about the benefits of plein air painting. Leading plein air luminaries sing the praises of outdoor painting. They tell you about the importance of local color and necessity of their emotional response to a place. These things inform their paintings, we are told. Many are plein air purists. Cameras are verboten, for they render images too dark and fail to capture the essence of a locale. And the studio should be a place to render larger works from the field studies.
All well and good, and to a point I can go along with it. Certainly there is much to be gained from painting on location. You do get a true sense of place, color and design that can fuel your creative effort. You'll be able to see into the shadows in ways you often cannot with photographs. You'll experience changing light, which can broaden your sense of subtle value gradations. Yes, there are many advantages to painting en plein air. But let's explore the disadvantages.
Painting outdoors is time consuming. You have to pack up your gear, trudge out to your destination, fight the elements and changing light. Sometimes there is the distraction of passers by, unexpected critters, bugs or a forgotten art supply. Nothing kills an outing faster than forgetting your paints, turps or sun hat. Bottom line, plein air painting can be challenging, frustrating and even discouraging. But none of this means you shouldn't do it. It simply means that you must prepare first.
My first plein air workshop was a disaster. I was a relative novice to oil painting, with a poor understanding of values. As John F. Carlson wrote, "It is a curious fact that out-of-door nature is to the beginner an enormously overloaded 'property room.' He sees, for instance, the myriad of leaves upon the tree long before he sees the tree at all."
Before I took that first workshop, I would have benefitted from more basic painting practice and study in my studio. I had a lot of drawing experience, but was less adept with paint. I needed to know more about values and color, and how to properly apply paint.
I've witnessed many beginners who excitedly sign up for outdoor workshops but come away frustrated. They haven't mastered the basics of drawing, perspective, design and painting. Their landscapes contain too much uniformity. They don't understand color values. Their work is saturated. The bright sky alters their interpretation of color and their studies are painted too dark. Once their work is brought in-doors they wonder what happened. All of this happened to me.
Naturally, over time the novice plein air painter will adapt to these challenges and see improvement. If he or she has limitless time to keep heading out there to paint. However, despite conventional plein air wisdom, I'd like to recommend two tools to accelerate your plein air painting growth. Get a good camera and spend more time experimenting in the studio.
A good camera will allow you to take many photographs of various landscape scenes. Just the action of selecting and framing different shots will train the eye. You'll be able to adjust your images to black and white and get a general sense of values. You can place these images on your computer monitor and practice painting in the comfort of your studio. In the time it takes to pack up, drive out to some destination, set up, fight the bugs and weather, you could be banging out numerous studies in your studio. All of which will accelerate your growth.
Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" argued that one must practice 10,000 hours to truly master one's performance. A Princeton study disputes that claim, but the old adage "practice makes perfect" generally holds true. Learning the basics of drawing and painting will likely save you hours of frustration painting outdoors. Once you can quickly render basic landscape scenes, you will find the plein air experience more beneficial and rewarding.
Using a camera will help remind you of the architecture of the landscape. Even when you do paint on location, it behooves you to take some snapshots of the scene. That way you'll have a photo reference to compare to later. A lot of top plein air artists still use their cameras in conjunction with their plein air studies. That way they capture local color and their emotional response on canvas, but also exact details on their camera. Many artists use the combination of their photos and studies to construct final, larger studio pieces.
Experimentation is often overlooked as an essential tool in building your artistic growth. Time spent in the studio trying out color combinations or unorthodox rendering and paint applications can lead to big breakthroughs. Sometimes I pull out old paintings to paint over. I keep some of these clunkers to see if I can craft a new piece. There's no pressure and as a result I feel freer to try stuff. Be it a new paint knife approach or crazy color combination. This low pressure exploration teaches me new things. It also can help you develop your own expressive style.
In a remark on a past blog post I wrote about plein air workshops (read it here), professional painter Brent Cotton had this to say:
"I think the most pivotal time for me was when I backed off on the plein-air painting and focused solely on studio pieces. I was frustrated that my work looked like everyone else's, so shifting from literal observations and copies of nature to more experimentation and introspection was a major leap forward for me. Having said that though; the plein-air period was probably the most helpful for me in learning how to see values, portray light accurately, simplify shapes, and be a better painter in general. That knowledge comes into play in creating my studio works and I draw upon that experience constantly."
Clearly, plein air painting has tremendous value, as Brent Cotton alluded. But many novices would benefit from getting the basics down first, using a camera to collect lots of landscape images and hours of experimentation in the studio. Do that, and I suspect your plein air outings will become more beneficial and enjoyable.