Painting 'plein air' - Cathedral Rock and Bunya Mountains NPs
Wondering how to get started with plein air painting? How to find the time? Where to go and what to take? What subjects to paint? Not sure how plein air painting might differ from studio painting, and what it might add to your work?
Camping trips are an ideal time to try painting plein air ("in the open air") - there's no rush or hurry, there are no distractions, there's no guilt or the poor excuse of getting back to 'proper' work, and there are ample beautiful landscapes from which to choose an inspiring setting.
This year I made up a 'camping calendar' for my family - we aim to go for a weekend away camping at least once per month, preferrably to new national parks each time (although there are always those beloved sites that we have to go back to time and again). Camping brings us together, teaches us to work as a team, helps us focus on what is ultimately important in our lives, and inspires us with the endless beauty of the natural world. What better time could there be to develop our creative side through plein air painting?
The calendar sets out dates and locations for the whole year, right from the beginning. We plan the general locations based on anticipated seasonal weather changes (ie, trips up to the tropical north in winter and further south in summer). Nothing is set in stone, but having the plans in place minimizes the time required for organization in the lead up to each trip, and everyone has sufficient warning to fit it into their schedules.
We go camping whether wind, rain or shine - we're set up with tents so we can walk a little way to more secluded campsites. We also take a large tarp for shelter, some long fold-out tables, folding chairs, and a solar-powered 1000 Lumen LED light.
Sometimes we're lucky and the trips are spectacular - surprisingly, often these are the weekends when it rains, and the sunlight breaking through after the storm has passed creates a magical atmosphere!
Our recent trip to Cathedral Rock National Park (between Armidale and Coffs Harbour, mid-north coast of New South Wales) was one such trip - the mornings especially were simply glorious (see Photos 1 and 2). I attempted my first ever plein air painting from our campsite at Cathedral Rock on that trip (see Fig. 1).
It was late afternoon, and we had just spent the last hour or two huddling under the tarp to escape from a rapidly-passing storm. The sun reappeared as the clouds blew away and all the foliage glistened with suspended raindrops. A pleasantly warm glow returned to the field beyond the campsite, and I decided to try to capture that after-storm warmth with my pastels.
I was reasonably pleased with my first attempt at plein air, and I think I learnt a few things in the process:
I discovered that light is a fickle thing! Clouds come and go, shadows move, the sun sets, and hues and tones change quite rapidly when painting in situ. It makes the whole painting process a bit unexpected, but it can be a good thing if you embrace it, and it can help to add liveliness to your scene!
Weather changes rapidly, so you need to be prepared! Weather not only affects the scene you're painting, but unless you have some good cover like a sturdy tarp, a small shower can quickly put a dampener on your painting process, literally! Or you might turn around to find your unsecured painting 20 metres away and stuck in a tree! It's important to have a painting set up that is efficient to pack up!
You don't get long enough to paint and the time goes surprisingly quickly! This seems a little counter-intuitive when we're assuming that you've devoted some reasonable time to painting in the relaxing camping setting - but when you're actually out there, there's simply not enough time! It's so easy to settle into the rhythm of painting when you're surrounded by the sights and sounds of the bush, and the fresh and organic fragrance of wildflowers. I find myself disappearing into that world for a time... until finally the red-gold sun slips below the tree-line and even my straining eyes can't distinguish the colour of the pastel I hold in my hands!
I enjoyed myself so much on that first trip, that I decided to try it again at the next opportunity! This time we were camped at Westcott campgrounds in Bunya Mountains National Park, QLD, Australia (see Photos 3 and 4).
It was an incredibly windy weekend, with winds up to 40 kmph, so everything had to be taped or strapped down and we almost lost our tents and tarp! Bunya Mountains NP provides a very different environment to Cathedral Rock NP - still wild, but dramatic in a different way... certainly more windswept on this occasion!
In terms of subjects and scenes, I haven't yet ventured far from the campsite with my plein air painting attempts due to logistical difficulties! So I've simply been choosing part of the campground backdrop to paint - a section that interests me with its colours or shapes. For me, painting plein air is just good relaxing practice at present, so the subject isn't wholly important!
I'll have to work on the portability of my travel pastel set so I can fit it all in a backpack or something similar. This time I decided to focus just on a small fragment of the surroundings, trying to work on loosening my technique to capture that small section of the grassy hillside scene before the light disappeared with the oncoming dusk (see Fig. 2).
The painting worked okay - I was most happy with the sky and little patterson's curse flowers dotting the foreground. So I was encouraged to try another painting the following afternoon (see Fig. 3).
But this time I gave up trying to represent the scene as I would have done were I rendering from a photo. I instead started focusing more on absorbing the atmosphere and mood of the scene, and the painting itself just sprang into being on my page!
This painting of daisies may be one of the most loose pastel paintings I've ever achieved (and given that I'm using pastels to help free up my technique, this is a very good thing)! I'm not entirely sure where the purples came from, but they seemed to fit my mood at the time! I was greatly enjoying making quick little wrist-flicking strokes in a rainbow of hues!
I'm looking forward to my next opportunity for plein air painting on our next camping trip!
Have you tried plein air painting? Do you have a special place or a time allocated for it? What do you like best about painting plein air?