Georgia artist Ann Dodys paints during the Olmsted Arts’ Georgia Color PaintQuick at Musgrove Retreat.
Picture this — an artist with an easel capturing the curve of the ocean shoreline, sunlight dancing on the waves, the sand dotted by a colorful cacophony of beach umbrellas. Perhaps a group of painters is staged along a meandering pathway beneath live oaks dressed with Spanish moss, light filtering through the leaves. Outdoor “plein air” artists, like these, can be found throughout the country among natural colorful landscapes and classic urban architecture. Though the subjects may be limitless, they have one thing in common: Each scene captures one, singular, unreplicable moment-in-time.
EN PLEIN AIR
“En plein air” painting, a French term meaning “in the open air,” came into practice in the mid-1800s, spurred by the invention of the tin paint tube. Up until this time, artists were limited to the use of ground pigment mixed with medium in the studio, a process not conducive to attempting works in the field. With the additional advent of lightweight collapsible easels, impressionists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissaro embraced the practice of creating studies and complete works insitu, and plein air painting became popular.
“Sunscreen” by Georgia artist Dottie Clark
Plein air works can be rendered in a variety of mediums. There are, of course, the traditional oil painters working in the impressionistic genre — yet pastel artists, watercolorists, gouache painters and travel sketchers find their place among the plein air scene as well. Many attempt to complete their paintings “alla prima,” an Italian term meaning “at once” or at first attempt.
Plein air artists strive to capture a sense of place, and chances are the emotion felt when immersed in a scene is what is rendered on the canvas. In short, what one experiences at that particular time: the cozy warmth of sunlight, a refreshing spray of cool mist, the sound of the crashing waves, is interpreted with each brushstroke by the artist. As a result, oftentimes picturesque locations pleasing to vacationers are also attractive to artists. With this in mind, plein air pieces can turn a moment into a memory, becoming family heirlooms to be passed down for generations.
While stumbling across a plein air painter can happen, especially in popular scenic vacation spots, keeping a sharp lookout adds to the romance of the hunt. Some artists are very measured when choosing their painting locations, while others enjoy the spontaneity of setting up their easel when a particular scene strikes their fancy. If you find yourself admiring a bucolic vista, look around — chances are there might be plein air painter working to capture the same sentiment and sensory experience of the moment.
“Soireé on St. Simons,” painted by Georgia artist Elizabeth Osborne during the Olmsted Arts Georgia Color Nocturn Painting
Lora Sherrodd, a 25-year-old burgeoning art collector based in Philadelphia, was first introduced to plein air painting by her artist mother. When vacationing in Boston, the family was taking advantage of the swan boats on a lake in the Public Gardens. As they approached the shore, Sherrodd noticed a group of plein air painters and pointed them out to her mother and grandmother. The family made their way to the artists, sparked up a conversation and then realized one of them was painting a scene of the boats they had just been on. Her mother purchased the painting off the easel, adding it to the family’s art collection. This led to numerous plein air acquisitions, with Sherrodd and her twin sister taking turns finding artists during family vacations.
“My favorite was when my sister found a plein air painter in the old town of Gamla Stan in Stockholm, Sweden, where my grandfather lived as a boy,” Sherrodd says. “My mom enjoyed his work so much she commissioned the artist to paint several pieces in places my grandfather used to tell us stories about when we were children. Someday my sister and I will inherit those paintings along with the memories they represent.”
It may seem intimidating to approach a painter set up with their easel, yet most welcome the conversation and are eager to talk about their work. “I am open to all kinds of questions and interaction,” says Trish Rugaber, a representational artist who works in watercolor and oils, and maintains working studios in St. Simons Island, Georgia, and in the mountains of North Carolina. “I am honored when others take an interest in my artwork and wish to learn something about my process.”
“Peonies in the Mountain Garden” by Colorado artist Lisa Sherrodd
Sparking a conversation and establishing a rapport with an artist adds to the experience of a plein air acquisition. Many artists remark that it is a true “give and take” between the artist and observer. They find the interactions meaningful whether the painting is purchased or simply admired. Some carry with them touching stories of how their artwork has engaged in such a way as to be particularly memorable.
George Netherton, a plein air painter who works in oil, gouache and watercolor, recounts the story of a gentleman who purchased a painting for his wife, who had been admiring Netherton’s work in progress but seemed to be having trouble speaking. The gentleman, taking Netherton aside, expressed that he wanted his wife to have the painting as a particular keepsake of Jekyll Island, a favorite vacation spot of the past 25 years. He then revealed that his wife had early onset dementia and this particular painting would be a way of remembering their special place. “It was, without a doubt, the most meaningful sale I had ever made,” says Netherton, who is based in St. Simons Island, Georgia.
One thing to keep in mind is that an artist may be deeply immersed in their subject and not always aware of what is happening behind them. Jennifer Broadus, a landscape oil painter also based on St. Simons, explains: “It requires a good degree of stamina and patience. The artist needs to work very quickly as the light is ever-changing.” Some artists may be willing to let the painting leave with the purchaser — a true “off the easel” experience — while others may prefer the painting have time to dry, be varnished or perhaps framed for protection. It’s best to take the artist’s advice, as they know how their work is best handled.