The Pain and Pleasure of Plein Air
Last month, after many months of exercising caution when gathering, or painting what was around me or on a screen in front of me, I sought to stretch myself a bit and head to the Plein Air Paint Out in Coupeville, WA. It’s not the first time I have painted outdoors. I have tried it in fits and starts over the years. I know it’s good for me. I know it’s an important practice for training the eye. I know it’s great to be outside, and in fact, I love and long to be outside!
I also know it’s “for real.” It’s really hard. A plein air artist has to pack a number of supplies and make sure nothing is left behind. She has to hike in (or at least walk a bit), set up and discern from the vast landscape what she wants to paint. And then she has to get on that creative "bull" and ride it until the one, two or three hours are up. Maybe longer. While the easel may not buck like a mechanical bull (except in the wind), the artist’s mind surely does—at least this one’s does. It takes a good bit of time to grow comfortable in this outdoor studio.
While driving onto Whidbey Island, where I had lived for 10 years, through the best and the worst of times, I envisioned the plein air experience to come. In one moment I had this beautiful dream of myself standing at the water’s edge, one with my environment and my materials, serving as a channel for the Divine, delivering a perfect seascape directly onto my canvas. In the next moment, I saw myself hiding out in my little motel room, cowering from the very same landscape because the Omnipotent had decided that there would be “no inspiration for me,” like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld.
The reality rested somewhere in the middle. And that "middle path" included the
beautiful environment and the tiny tin.
Where the beauty of the landscape seemed overwhelming, I would sit and drink in the morning mist, feel the sun on my face, listen to the cackle of seagulls and just offer gratitude. It seemed like that was enough. Just to be there. Breathe and be alive.
And then there were the tiny Altoids mints tins (and subsequently tiny setup that I carried in a single bag). How could I possibly take this effort too seriously, in a 2x3” space that is a repurposed breath mint container. Yes, they are curiously strong mints, but that doesn’t make the surface on which I was painting any more precious.
At the Paint Out, I found myself sitting on the dock of the bay, or cove, as the case may be, painting the tide as it slipped away. The tide that existed long before I walked on this earth—before the first fish swam in it. And my canvas is even smaller. My canvas is a tiny snapshot in vast time.
Soaking in the beauty of the environment, being present, still and small, I felt the unbelievable lightness of being (thanks and apologies, Milan Kundera) and painting just seemed like such a gift.
At the end of the week, I drove away, eager to get home to family—to share my adventures in nature and paint and even a few sales. I drove home full and fully present.
I’ve been sitting with this for a few weeks, letting it wash over me.
Tomorrow, I’m going to Triple Wrens Farms in Ferndale to paint dahlia with the Plein Air Washington Artists (PAWA). It looks like rain. Again, I feel overwhelmed. I see myself at the edge of a vast sea of flowers, drowning in beauty. That is, until I pull out my tiny tin or cigar box or the surface du jour and realize that each flower is fleeting beauty—like each of us. Too beautiful not to paint en plein air.