Sometimes plein air painting feels more like
a sport than an art form.
By Kat Sawyer / Artists Sketchbook Magazine / October
The excitement of capturing those last golden rays as the weary day slips
into an indigo sea ... the exhilaration of evoking the essence of a winter
morning ... the horror of a squadron of mosquitoes sending you screaming from
your unfinished nocturne ... this is the world of plein air painting-or what
I call painting in the extreme.
My obsession began innocently enough. I was simply looking for something to
do while my boyfriend went fishing. I like nature. I like to paint. First
consideration: what to wear. Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland
(Westphal Publishing) makes it all look so romantic. It pictures men in suits,
berets and cool-looking smocks. Women in long skirts and darling straw hats
recline under quaint umbrellas as they capture on canvas the beauty of unpolluted
skies and breathtaking vistas.
My painting ensemble is bizarre. I wear an itchy straw gardener's hat that
has developed the annoying habit of slipping down toward the bridge of my
nose. My face and neck are smeared with some sort of 1,000 SPF goo that I
pray won't sweat into my eyes. Zinc oxide chalks my nose and lips. A paint-spattered
Solumbra shirt tucks into a pair of overalls bulging with wallet, beeper,
cell phone and a small bottle of Evian. Underneath this disaster, I sport
support hose, orthotics and hiking boots. To complete the look: gloves. Latex
gloves. I look like a hideous clown. "Oh well," I tell myself. "It's
not how I look, it's how I see."
I bravely flirt with cataracts and varicose veins. I laugh at crow's feet
(ha-ha), but lately I've been wondering how Botox would affect my perception
I'm beginning to think that plein air painting is a sport for the young. Along
with extreme skiing and extreme snowboarding, how about extreme painting?
You know, like painting while hang gliding, scuba diving or raising three
My endurance one Sunday mooning somewhere outside of Mammoth more than qualifies
me. It was just my talent and I, pitted against gale force winds that seemed
to have kicked up the moment I clipped on my canvas. Bracing for the worst,
I anchored my setup by hooking one end of a bungee cord to my easel and the
other to my shoelaces. While my right hand gripped the brush, my left hand
alternately steadied the umbrella and kept the Turpenoid from gleefully splashing
all over my palette. An eternity later, I emerged beat, but not beaten, and
there was so much grit on my canvas it looked like a fresco. Painting on location?
Yeah, it's extreme.
If, that is, you can find a location. I feel as if I'm being hounded by the
specter of urban sprawl. If I delete any more housing developments from my
paintings, all that's going to be left is sky. And why is it that the best
views are always from the turnout lanes on the freeway?
If you happen to find a spot, you'd better pray it's close to your car or
that you have a Sherpa to help you with all your stuff. Aside from painting
gear, my backpack is bursting with tent spikes, ropes, bug spray, plastic
hammer, PowerBars, snakebite kit, baby wipes, Swiss army knife, two headlamps,
batteries and more zinc oxide. It's like camping in panty hose.
Is it all worth it? Extremely.
So if, on your next sojourn into the wilderness, you hear out of the shadows
of an alpine lake, or over the roar of the surf at Laguna Beach, or echoing
through a forgotten canyon, something that sounds like "! #$%* Nature!"
don't be alarmed. It's just the plaintive wail of the plein air painter.
It's the sound of art being born.
Kat Sawyer is a plein air painter living in Sherman Oaks, California.