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Ramona Stafford Bagley
Painting Plein Air
I’m from California but I'm not a surfer.
I'm sure you've felt it though; Watching someone catch a wave you can’t help but feel a little exhilaration.
Painting Plein air is a bit like that only a little bit slower and for perhaps less athletic people.
But first just like surfing, (I imagine) it's a lot of work.
I begin by packing up my portable studio the night before and getting up early in the morning to drive (sometimes many miles) to set up so that the essentials are there at my fingertips, i.e. easel, canvas, paint box, stool, camera and an extra bag with tools, rags, paper towels and wet wipes, water, and lunch, and finally an umbrella which must be placed just right to protect the canvas from glare that would skew the actual perception of color. After setting up camp I spend some precious moments in deciding the exact composition, which of course holds much importance to the result.
Once I’ve decided which group of trees I am going to paint and whether I want the lake on the left or the right and taken a photo , I can get started with the project at hand, ….artists cannot be lazy!
When you are painting a landscape, as you stand in it, you must observe with every fiber of your being the place and the moment. There is an atmosphere which includes the light, the breeze, or the stillness and sometimes the chill or the mist. You are taking in the beauty you want to express, absorbing it, and feeling you are becoming one with the wave. This atmosphere infiltrates your work and for the couple of hours it takes for the light to change and for your place to no longer be the same place it was when you first touched the canvas with your brush (which means you must stop); you are to the best of your ability one with your subject. There is a wave you are riding there in the field or in the forest, and you are determined not to let it dump you and crash over your head but to feel the heightened spirit of life in riding the crest.
Your eyes must take in so much at once and then process as quickly as possible and then put out the response to your subject onto the canvas. It may look like a simple, easy process when someone else is doing it, but it is the loads of practice that gives the illusion of simplicity. The surfer must be in a state of relaxed and heightened awareness that allows for easy and fluid mobility. if there is tension it’s just not going to be a great ride and the result will also be that while painting if you are not focused and centered and relaxed the result will also be disappointing. There are many days your painting just does'nt cut it. The hours and hours of practice in becoming one with your pallet, your own particular pick of brand and color, on which you mix your colors automatically allows the natural spirit of connection with your subject. If that connection is broken the wave crashes overhead. That’s enough of technicalities. This is not the fun part. What’s fun is riding the wave when you are prepared and ready, and the exhilaration of looking at the result and revisiting a very special moment which you take away with you and hold in your hands.
I think it's often a surprise to an artist who tries plein air painting ,for the first time, that they end up experiencing nature in a powerful and completely unique way.
If you’ve ever had a meal cooked over a campfire you know that in spite of the adversity and challenges that cooking outdoors entailed , food always tasted better for it. You often remember minute sensory details of the experience as well as the food you ate. When the artist looks at a plein air painting that they themselves painted no matter how many years ago, they will usually smile, but be sure to look into their eyes, because they will be time traveling back to a place they know better than anyone else has ever known it and cherishing the remembered oneness with nature and the satisfaction of having interpreted it onto canvas.
It is a blessing to be an artist.
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