By Patricia Dubroof
“En plein air” is a French expression that means “in the open air,” used to describe the art of painting outdoors. Plein air events take place wherever the scenery is inspirational, artists congregate to paint it, and watchers gather to see the painters make art right before their eyes.
Challenge: I like to paint big. I like to paint acrylic and oil pastel on large pieces of paper: 9 x 7 feet big. But that size and format is totally unrealistic for painting outdoors. As a young artist, I always had a sketchbook in hand and made drawings wherever I happened to be. Of late my artwork is made in the studio. Spring 2016, I was exhibiting at Sandy Spring Museum and saw several plein air painters working around the event. I actually did a painting of one of the painters named “Larry”, it seemed like a fun idea.
When I heard about two plein air painting events this summer I made plans to participate and knew I needed a new size and challenge to make the process fun. I asked one of my favorite plein air painters for advice on how this works. Ann Schaeffer is an exemplary plein air artist who makes paintings in Frederick (where she is a member of Gallery 322), Glen Echo, which is near her Bethesda home, Key West, where she spends her winters and all along the Eastern Shore. She tutored me over a cup of coffee near the Gallery in Frederick. She recommended the best stool to buy, the gist of how these things work and got me very excited about participating.
Preparation: After a bathroom renovation in our home, I discovered we had a big roll of black tar paper left. I decided to cut the paper into LP size squares. (If you don’t know what an LP is – they measure 12 x 12 inches) Thankfully, stores like Michael’s still carry inexpensive and well-made frames for LP covers and I purchased several for the exhibition. Now that I had the paper, I decided I would limit my material to just oil pastels.
The rough texture of the paper would add to the challenge and character of the pieces. I thrifted some small lightweight tray tables that I could tape the paper to and serve as my supply table.
Plein Air Scenario I: Hyattstown Mill Arts Project (HMAP) Hyattstown, MD
Adventure: I have been a member of the HMAP for years, participating and volunteering when I can. When I heard they were doing a show this summer for artwork made on site, it piqued my interest. I love an excuse to go out the mill, out to the edge of Montgomery County, out were the trees are many and people very few. The morning I had scheduled for this plein air adventure, it rained, hard! It cleared as I was leaving Rockville and it just became excessively humid post storm DC classic weather. I actually like humidity. I was ready. I had my paper and pastel, table and stool into my car.
Outcome: I found a great spot near the Mill, set up and spent a couple of hours making two pieces. The next day I returned with framed pieces and installed them for the month long exhibit. The new format worked and I was encouraged.
Plein Air Scenario II: Artists Paint Ocean City (OC) Maryland
Adventure: Being by the sea is my happy place and fortunately our family continues to enjoy our condo on the Atlantic in OC, MD. I cleared my work schedule and packed up black paper, oil pastels and watercolors. This plein air adventure was to last 5 days with exhibit, judges, parties and more. Registration meant bringing in your paper or canvas and having it officially stamped by OC Art Center. Only these papers could be used for exhibitions. It’s an honor system for the most part, but this made it more concrete.
After a lovely reception with a brief talk by accomplished local artist, Patrick Henry, Ann Schaefer and I decided to catch the sunset and do a “nocturnal” painting to kick off the week. She sweetly brought me little clip on light so as the sunset, I could still see the color of the pastels! It was a red sky sunset and we both managed to get a painting out of our spur of the moment attempts.
Later that evening, the moon rose over the sea and I jumped up and ran outdoors to catch it too.
This was beginning to feel very fun. I vowed to focus on the nocturnal paintings. I loved seeing the bright pastels against the black paper. The next several days I packed up my bags and went finding other locations; bayside, ocean side. I had a great time at Sunset Park, live music and lots of inquisitive tourists. The Art Center gave us all plenty of postcards and asked that we hand them out and help promote the show and sale. I decided wherever I went I would have extra materials for curious minds to try it out. Arriving early to Blue Crab Restaurant to meet up with other painters for dinner, I had several waiters painting watercolors!
It has been three years since the grand ship El Galeon had been in harbor in OC, but she arrived our last morning and I managed to get a sunset painting in before the rains came that evening. The next day was delivery day of finished framed works. I waited til the rain paused and made my way over to the Art Center with seven completed paintings, 3 watercolor and 4 pastel. It was great to see all the other artists work. Some of the places where they chose to set up and paint were familiar. There was a big range in ability and sensitivity to the light. Most used oil paint. A few made nocturnal paintings. In the end there were 52 painters, a couple chose not to exhibit. The artwork was judged by Stewart White, AWS, and awards made to 10 wonderful artists @artistspaintoc. Alas, my naïve style didn’t make the cut. The following morning was a “quick draw” event on the boardwalk, but I opted for yoga on the beach in the drizzle. Later in the day I collected my work and wished all well. It was an exhilarating process. I will continue to make art plein air, as I have the system down, bags are ready! I’m out of the studio and into the wild, wild world.
Patricia Dubroof is an arts innovator with over 35 years experience in studio, gallery and cultural arts planning. She has dedicated her life to using art as a healing modality with all ages.