PLEIN AIR PAINTING AND ARTISTIC GROWTH
International Artist|December 2021 - January 2022
Plein air artist Michael King explores elements unique painting in the field in this three-part series.
Michael King

In our everyday life, our unique experience, our exposure to change and mistakes are what forge us into a more knowledgeable and, arguably, better person. As with anything, new painting experiences usually end with a less than desirable result. Failure is good, it makes you grow, experiment and improve your skills to conquer.

Anyone who has painted for any length of time has been told at some point, “There is nothing like painting from life," usually in the form of a still life or portraiture. Now take everything you've experienced or heard about painting from life and turn it up to 11—that is plein air painting.

Painting from life is great, as you see the true colors, the true values, the true shadows, the true light. In my opinion, it's needed to grow as a representational or impressionistic painter. However, it doesn't necessarily give you the full experience. The experience of changing light, moving shadows, undulating water, shifting winds, along with moving subjects and clouds. Not to mention other activities outside of what you are trying to focus on, like distractions provided by an off-leash dog or hovering bystanders.

What I love the most about plein air painting, though, is how it can all change. In any moment of time, the sky, the grasses, or the water may seem lifeless, but wait 10 minutes and everything transforms. The sky builds an amazing array of clouds, the grasses are gleaming with a wash of warm light and the water now sparkles. This also applies in reverse; if you see something that is amazing, get it in before it disappears.

With plein air you are not just painting a landscape, you are painting the multitude of changes, curating your visual experience over the duration of the session. Nothing a single photo can ever convey.

Lights First: Painting Late Afternoon Dappled Light

I came up to a location late afternoon, in my case 4 p.m., that was full of life and had me in awe with dappled light in the midground (see Figure A1). After setting up and painting for an hour, wham! That magical dappled light disappears. Fortuitously, experience has told me to lay the lights in ahead of time knowing it can shift drastically. The key now is to remember to leave it alone.

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