How to Be a Plein-Air Painter - Some Rules for Fun and Profit

You are a painter. One lovely summer day, an iconic vision comes to mind: you see yourself seated at your easel in a field of flowers, working peacefully on a plein-air landscape painting as clouds float above and bees pass by, humming in a friendly manner while searching for nectar or creating honey or whatever. You decide upon the spot that you will join the great tradition of plein-air painters, following in the revolutionary footsteps of John Constable, who first left his studio to approach a landscape painting in glorious nature herself. You seize your hat—it is straw and has a broad brim, and you never quite had the nerve to wear it before, but now it reminds you of Sargent or somebody, and it’s perfect—and, with a song in your heart, you open the door upon the big beautiful world.

Stop. Before you take another step, please pause for a moment to brush up on your history. Your forebears would like to help you, so following are their rules for achieving happiness and success in your new venture:

1. Take Some Friends

In the first place, it’s harder than you might think to find a spot that is both picturesque and unique, and if time grows short and the trees are all starting to look the same, you can always arrange your companions in a nice little group and paint them.

Winslow Homer, Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, 1868 Portland Museum of Art, Portland Maine

There is also a strong possibility that you may end up starting an artist’s colony. This is how plein-air became popular in the first place, when large numbers of enthusiastic young painters like yourself took up their easels and went out in search of pretty little unknown towns where they could congregate and lodge cheaply, and found Old Lyme, South and East Hampton, Étretat, Pont-Aven, Concarneau, St. Ives, Newlyn, and Skagen (among other places). Surely there is a nice coastal spot somewhere that will someday be the site of a museum dedicated to your soon-to-be-famous work.

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, 1885 Tate Museum, London

Finally, painting with friends is the perfect way to fall in love with a fellow-artist, become part of an awful love triangle, wreak havoc on your work, and annoy your friends and family before you finally settle down. “I fear love-making and painting don’t go together,” wrote artist Stanhope Forbes’s Aunt Alice in 1886, while Forbes was visiting Newlyn. “Stannie has not done much of the latter and oh! To say he is silly over Miss Armstrong is to say nothing. He is too foolish and does not care who sees him. If I were Miss Armstrong I should box his ears.” (No ear-boxing occurred—Miss Armstrong married Forbes instead, so you will probably be fine.)

2. Don’t Worry Too Much About the Details

George Inness, Summer, Montclair, 1891 Private Collection

The great thing about a landscape, aside from the fact that you do not have to pay it to pose for you, is that it did not commission you and won’t be offended if you play around with its features a little. You might emulate the young man in Old Lyme, hired to carry a painting from the field for a lady painter, who dropped the canvas face down in the dirt, and hastened to “fix” his mistake by painting over it himself, remarking that “it look a darn sight better than it did before it tumbled.” The great Jules Bastien-Lepage once confessed that he couldn’t help painting each detail of a given scene when outdoors, but liked to wipe out most of them upon returning to his studio. Arthur Wesley Dow noted to himself on a 1908 landscape print: “Experiment—marsh not right.” And the incomparable George Inness turned landscapes into seascapes and sunsets into moonrises as he saw fit, sometimes even after the painting was finished and sold to an unsuspecting client. He was also open to suggestions, according to one biographer:

George Inness, Midsummer, 1862 Private Collection

Gentleman: “Mr. Inness, what is that spot there alongside the barn?”

Inness: “What do you think it looks like?”

Gentleman: “Well, I should say it was a wheelbarrow.”

Inness: “Good, that’s just what I thought it was, too.”

3. Be Brave, and Be Careful

Nature, as the poet reminds us, is red in tooth and claw. This goes for the flora as well as the fauna. Let us close with John Everett Millais’ description of working outdoors on his famous drowning Ophelia:

My martyrdom is more trying than any I have hitherto experienced. The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh. … I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay; likewise by the admission of a bull in the same field after the said hay be cut; am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that lady sank to muddy death, together with the (less likely) total disappearance, through the voracity of the flies. There are two swans who not a little add to my misery by persisting in watching me from the exact spot I wish to paint, occasionally destroying every water-weed within their reach.

Painters, you’ve been warned ….