The summer break over December could not have come at a better time. I expect most people have similar feelings when the year's travails have built up together with the expectations of a well earned rest. In my case this amounted to two weeks away from my studio and office. No internet either. Other than Christmas preparations I had undivided time for painting. I had decided that this time would comprise of plein air painting only.
I have a suitcase converted into a portable plein air studio. It can carry my tripod, pochade box, roll of brushes, paints and bottles of brush cleaner plus the few other bits and pieces that make painting easier. With this kit I can set up my plein air expedition almost anywhere.
Why just plein air? First off I had some bad habits to clear up from the past year. So many other commitments to a painting life leads to adaptions to my painting process. This can lead to excessive details and other sort of fiddles that distract me from the getting to the essence of a painting. Overworking a painting is perhaps one of the biggest frustrations an artist can face. How to say what is necessary and no more. This plagues writers, poets, movie makers and probably any creative pursuit one can take up. Plein air painting is a way of getting back to the essentials. The foundation.
The summer heat means having a routine for early starts to the day. At 6am I was at the beach setting up my pochade box. While other early beach goers were taking their walks and swims I was looking out for compositions to paint. In summer this golden light created wonderful contre jour opportunities. Since I was facing east I had the sun reflecting off the sea directly in front of me. People were walking along the water's edge or venturing into the sea. By standing in an elevated position either on a dune or even the car park I could look down towards the sea. This meant I still had brilliant colours coming from the sea and sand. Greens, blues, golden sand and foaming waves of yellows and violets.
The challenge to identify these colours, mix them from a limited palette of primaries and put them on the panel is the highlight of the plein air experience. The process is one of intuitive painting. Rapid paint application, but never done recklessly. You have to concentrate to see what is actually going on in front of you. The temptation is to simply paint waves as you might know them from pictures. This approach does not teach us anything. Plein air teaches us to really see, interpret, paint true colours and capture the truth of the scene. This is a learning experience filled with excitement that no art book or video can match.
Once you take on the plein air painting approach you will see, for example, that fanciful seascapes of translucent waves curling over in greensih-yellow hues are simply concoctions far removed from reality. Pretty pictures yes, but in truth they are as surreal as any Dali painting. If truth in representational painting is what you seek then plein air impressions and studies are essential. You can even paint the ugly and everyday scenes around you and show them to be worthy subjects. This is where the art comes in and transforms the scene into its essence of hues, shapes and values.
Between six and seven AM I could complete two panels then break off until the late afternoon. This daily routine was a wonderful way to spend my time free of distractions. Of course another benefit of plein air is that my studio works will benefit too. Plein air works are references in themselves. The outdoor painting experience also adds to my artist's memory. Sensations experienced first hand are accessible in the studio too, which translates into larger paintings that have that sense of immediacy and truth.
With a renewed sense of purpose I look forward to another year of painting, learning and sharing my art experiences with you.
All the best for 2014!
Malcolm Dewey: Artist. Country: South Africa