Lately I’ve been trying out plein air painting–French for painting outdoors. I crave the immediacy, openness and energy after the more controlled setting of my studio. I am part of the landscape while I paint; there’s an awareness of my surroundings that’s different than when I’m working from photographs. I set up my easel near a picnic table at Sunset Pond in Bellingham, WA and got to work. Dark clouds threatened to dump rain on me and put an end to my painting session but I forged ahead, enjoying the cool overcast morning. A muskrat swam to the surface of the pond, then ducked under the water when it saw me. Crunch, crunch. I heard shoes approach over the dry yellow grass. An older man took a peek at my painting in progress and said, “You are very talented.” He was wearing a name tag and I assumed he was Mormon especially when he told me he was Elder________ and had relocated from Utah. I kept expecting him to give me a tract because he was so friendly. But he didn’t.
After he walked away, a flock of Canadian geese strutted up the bank of the pond and began preening themselves nearby. They bent their necks and used their round heads to roller their necks and chests. Their preening done, they settled down for a nap. Suddenly a little boy with red socks approached hugging a huge tub of popcorn.
He peered up at my painting and said, “I sure wish I could paint like that.”
“I thought you were painting the geese,” the boy said. “I’m glad you aren’t because I’m here to feed them my popcorn.”
“Is it fresh?” I asked the boy, eye-ing his buttery popcorn with longing.
“Yes,” said his mom who had finally caught up to her excited son. “Give the lady come popcorn,” she said to her son and he let me take a large handful.
He started throwing fistfuls of the corn at the geese but they weren’t hungry so he left after a few more attempts.
I painted some more, reflecting on how connected I felt to reality when I painted outside. I didn’t feel alone with the geese, a boy with popcorn, a muskrat, and others for company. That said, I had to deal with the special challenges of plein air painting–the reflections on the pond kept changing, and the clouds morphed shape, and the sun came out and started drying my acrylic paints on my palette before I could use them.
I heard the crunching of the grass again and the elderly man reappeared.
“It’s you again,” I said, expecting the tract for sure this time.
“Painting is your expression of beauty. This is mine,” he said, placing a round natural wood vase in my hand. “I want you to keep it. I love bringing out the natural wood grain” he said.
I started to tell him how much this meant to me because my deceased grandpa had turned wooden pots on a lathe but he was already walking away. It felt like my grandpa had sent him to me as a sign that that I’m on the right track. I imagined my grandpa smiling down at me as he witnessed my simple joy in painting the pond, the yellow green trees and the dusky blue mountain.
I stopped to eat a bite of pasta for lunch and then went back to work. The longer I painted, the quieter my mind grew. The whole thing from start to finish had taken four hours. As I packed up I felt tired but refreshed in spirit like one newly baptized. The experience had been far more important than the painting that I made.
P.S. I have to admit that I have hesitated to do plein air painting–I mean, it conjures images of bourgeois Impressionist painters, almost all men. But I believe it’s time for contemporary artists to consider working plein air as a strategy. As smart phones and other screens become ever more distracting and eat up more and more of people’s time and attention, our ability to connect to the earth and each other grows ever more tenuous. Working on site–whatever the medium employed–creates new possibilities for engagement and transformed perception. At the very least, it is a way of calling attention to what is visible but often overlooked. I recently met Vancouver artist Jenny Hawkinson who works primarily in video and installation but has begun a new series of plein air drawings of homeless encampments. It’s curious that we have both chosen the inconvenience and unpredictability of working from life–at least for now.