Reflecting on time set aside for learning, the one thing I can say is that there are no shortcuts. To make great art, one has to simply put in the time to learn. No one would ever sit down at a piano and expect to know how to play it, having never learned the scales. That’s the key to anything: “learn the scales” and practice. So where to begin if painting is what you desire to do? Videos, books and classes.
It’s that time of year. For those of us who enjoy working from nature but aren’t into the winter plein air bit, the weather has just turned into something we can work with.
Plein air painting, also called outdoor painting, is a completely different beast than studio work — and a method of working that I didn’t easily adjust to. I loved the idea of it, but in practice, my easel would blow over, taking my wet paint with it, both returning full of dirt … only to repeat the whole scenario all over again moments later.
I had so many frustrations early on in my outdoor work, but the outdoor part kept calling me back. The beauty of nature, the sound of the birds: I wanted this to be my office. I figured there must be a way.
My setup is very different now, and my time outside painting is more peaceful — in increasing measure as I figure out better ways of working. I use a pochade box (see photo) now instead of a easel. I invested in a sturdy tripod to hold my pochade box. I work on smaller panels, instead of huge canvases, and I work in oil paint versus acrylic when the sun is out so my paint doesn’t dry up on me.
Not that I don’t ever work differently: I will paint a big canvas in acrylic if I can drive right up to my painting spot, the wind is calm, and the sun not so hot that my paint dries fast. It can be fun to shake things up and work differently, which is the allure of plein air painting. Setting yourself up to study nature, and immersing yourself in it. For a landscape painter, there is nothing better than that.
It helps to have some guidance as you get started in this incredibly rewarding way of working. I highly recommend the podcast “Plein Air Painting,” the book “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting,” and studying from the masters: Andrew Wyeth, Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Durand, or any of the Hudson River School painters.
And most definitely, take a class. With good weather upon us, lots of classes are available. Or — if you live near Grand Rapids or Traverse City — send me an email. I’ll be happy to take you outdoors in nature and get you started on an adventure that will change your life and your relationship to the outdoor world. It will teach you to see, to appreciate, and I promise you will never be the same. I know I’m not.