Painting in natural light

Painting in natural light

By: Randal B. Thatcher


Columnist Randal B. Thatcher

If you had lived in France during the late 1800s, you might’ve been lucky enough to glimpse a great impressionist artist, like Claude Monet or Pierre-Auguste Renoir, sitting outside, in front of their portable “field easel” and painting the landscape in its natural light—a style of painting that originated in France, and became known as, “plein air” painting, or outdoor painting.

Well, it’s not the 1800s, and we’re not living in France.  But we can still experience the thrill of witnessing first-rate artists sitting outside, while capturing our local landscapes on canvas.

Just take a drive through Spring City this week, and you’re likely to see an artist—or several artists—intently striving to portray the natural essence of an outdoor scene, while the light lasts.

And you’re virtually guaranteed to see this same spectacle of plein air painting if you show up on Main Street this Saturday morning (dawn till 10 a.m.) for the Quick Paint Event & Auction.

This week is the annual Spring City Plein Air Festival, when local artists are joined by landscape artists from as far away as China, to paint in nature’s outdoor setting, and then exhibit their works in the Spring City Art Gallery (from 10 a.m. to 5p.m. on Saturday) for sale and auction.

I can’t tell you much about the thoughts of Monet or Renoir respecting their own plein air painting, but I can tell you how Susan Gallacher, local Spring City resident and artist, feels about her plein air efforts.  Says Susan, “Plein air painting is, for me, the ultimate—being outside, surrounded by nature’s beauty; and witnessing fleeting moments, whether bursts of color, elusive wildlife, or the silent, soft shades of an overcast day.”

For Susan, photographs never quite capture the real colors—the lights or the darks. Her inspiration is stoked by being completely surrounded and immersed in nature, a living witness to the scene she is striving to express in paint. “If you love landscape,” she says, “you remember the wonderful moments of being there, of seeing a vast panorama, or the delicate beauty of a wildflower.”

Ken Baxter, another local artist, has been practicing this plein air method of painting since the eighth grade, and still finds it elusive.  First, because your chosen subject is constantly changing, as the sun moves and the weather fluctuates. Second, because surprises will occur: unexpected clouds and wind bursts, unanticipated visitors (including, on more than one occasion, a curious police officer), and most importantly, the light continually moving on the subject.  “Planning for these events is helpful,” Ken says, “however, this living subject seems to have a personality of its own.”

This attempt to capture the essence of such a mercurial subject, amid shifting sun, wind, and even air particles, can feel sometimes “like a sublime meditation,” according to Ken; but at other times, “like attempting to get a bobcat into a suitcase!”  Either way, he says, “The process requires total focus.”

Michelle Condrat, an award-winning plein air artist from Salt Lake City, agrees. She says that “plein air painting is one of the most raw and pure ways an artist can paint, because you aren’t looking at a photograph, or through a filter or a screen. There is nothing but what you are actually seeing before you, and it is real and fleeting.”

According to Michelle, painting in the outdoors in real time is vastly more challenging than painting in the comfort and control of the studio; but that when you get it right, despite all the many inherent challenges, “the sense of accomplishment is 10 times the reward, compared to finishing a painting in the studio.”

I asked Randall Lake, another local Spring City artist about his own experiences with plein air painting over the years, and he replied simply, “Nature is the best teacher.”  Just mixing the paint to properly depict the myriad greens, browns and soft blues of nature is a valuable learning exercise. In Randall’s words, “It’s tough to mix the mountains.”

I asked these long-time artists to explain to me, when studio painting is so much easier, why they continue to struggle with all the many challenges of outdoor painting.

Said Susan Gallacher, “Being in a cushy studio, where you are in complete control, takes away the true enjoyment of painting.”

Said Michelle Condrat, “When you find the right spot, and nail the scene, it is pure gold!”

Said Ken Baxter, “There seems to be no cure for this plein air virus.”

Said Randall Lake, “It’s damn difficult.”  (And he savors the challenge.)

So, come to Spring City today, tomorrow, or Saturday and watch some very accomplished and highly skilled artists engaged in the process of doing something that is, “Damn difficult.”


[Comments are very welcome: ahalfbubbleoffplumb@gmail.com.]