My Awkward Artistic Adventure
Learning Plein Air Painting
A Message for Beginners from PleinAir Publisher B. Eric Rhoads
Eric's son, Brady, painting
I can laugh now as I look back at that moment when I was forced to become a plein air painter. Yes, forced.
For my 40th birthday, my wife, Laurie, bought me an art lesson, probably because she was tired of hearing me whine about how I couldn’t accomplish on canvas what I had in my mind. After that lesson I became a passionate convert to figurative painting, and it consumed every spare moment for years. Until one day I heard her shout, “Get that paint out of the house, please! I can’t stand the smell!” We had just found out she was pregnant, and we quickly learned that having someone painting indoors is not an option during a pregnancy.
Take It Outside!
Like any good painter, I knew that a day without painting was like a day without life-giving breath. So I dragged my giant studio easel and a big box of paints, mediums, brushes, and almost the entire contents of my studio out on to the golf course to paint a beautiful scene of the California mountains. It was my first outdoor painting experience. I brought a stretched canvas — which went sailing through the air as soon as the wind kicked up.
What Do You Call It?
On a business trip to Los Angeles I was telling the story of that first outdoor painting experience to my friend Dick Orkin, a well-known voice on radio and TV commercials. He told me I had been painting “en plein air” (a term I had never heard), then drove me to a local bookstore and bought me two books: Plein Air Painters of California: The North and Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland, both edited by Ruth Lilly Westphal.
Two books that inspired Eric to learn plein air painting
That day changed my life. I consumed these books full of images and essays about the great California masters like Armin Hansen, Arthur Matthews, E. Charlton Fortune, Joseph Raphael, William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Guy Rose, Joseph Kleitsch, and many others. I fell instantly in love with the mood, the splashing light, the distant eucalyptus trees, the crashing surf, the California landscapes. These paintings had energy unlike any I had ever seen. I was determined to learn how to paint en plein air, and to learn everything I could about it.
Our First Plein Air Event
My “outdoor studio” experience was not a good one, but soon after that I saw an ad for The Scene on the Straight, a small plein air show in Martinez, California, just outside San Francisco. Laurie and I visited the show, and I discovered a field full of plein air painters — the first I’d seen, aside from historical photos of Monet. One painter’s work in particular captured our hearts, so we purchased our first plein air painting, from artist Kevin Courter. It still hangs over our fireplace, and he remains one of my favorite painters.
When I asked Kevin about learning to paint, he gave me some sage advice: “Attend as many workshops as you can afford to attend. But most important, paint 100 paintings in one hour or less each. Once you’ve done that, you’ll see progress in your work.”
Finding the Plein-Air Painters of America
Eventually I attended a week of workshops put on by PAPA, Plein-Air Painters of America. I gathered with other painters in Colorado with my wife and our newborn triplets in tow, and I took my first workshops from Ken Auster, Matt Smith, and Ned Mueller. I still have the paintings I did then, which I keep as a reminder of how difficult it is to learn to paint outdoors.
All Roads Lead to Plein Air
It’s hard to believe it was more than 10 years ago that I started painting en plein air. Today I have a studio again and I don’t have to worry about the smell of paint, yet I have become a passionate disciple of plein air painting and have discovered that plein air makes me a better figurative painter as well, because I have learned form, shadow, and light in new ways. All my experiences in learning to paint ultimately led me to founding PleinAir magazine, the Plein Air Convention, Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, and so much more.
Learning to Paint Outdoors
Any plein air painter will tell you that no matter how long you’ve been painting, it’s completely different when you’re working outdoors. You don’t want to drag all that gear on location, and you need to be able to set up fast and keep everything easy to carry. Plus, painting in an uncontrolled environment requires a different set of skills. Learning to paint is hard enough — learning to paint outdoors is a whole different animal. My only regret about learning to paint is that I wish someone had saved me the hundreds of hours I wasted when I first started trying plein air on my own.
Paint-Out At Last Year's Plein Air Convention
Brave New Plein Air Painters
Last year at our Plein Air Convention we had dozens of people who attended because they wanted to learn about plein air painting. Some were first-time painters, while others were experienced artists who had never painted outdoors. I met many people during our painting outings with brand-new easels, who painted plein air for the first time on that day. But frankly, just going out in the field is not the best way to learn plein air. That’s why I created a Plein Air Basics course for new plein air painters, which will be held before the official opening of this year’s convention.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know
Plein Air Basics
If you want to learn to paint plein air, the Plein Air Basics course is an ideal first step before you get immersed in the Plein Air Convention. Our instructors, some of the top painters in America, will start from scratch and teach you everything you need to know before you go out — everything from what to carry and pack, how to set up, how to paint in an outdoor environment, materials you’ll need, the basics of composition, how to start a painting, how plein air painting differs from studio painting, dealing with the elements, how painting outdoors impacts value and light, and much more.
Pass This On to People Who Want to Learn Plein Air
If you already know plein air painting, I hope to see you at our Plein Air Convention. It’s like Woodstock for painters. If you know someone who wants to learn the basics of plein air, please pass this note on to them. And if you’re new to plein air painting and want to learn the basics, our course starts at 8 a.m. on April 10, before the 4 p.m. opening of the convention later that day. The cost is $99 for a full day of workshops.
Will the day make you a better painter? Probably not, but it will help you save hundreds of hours of making mistakes on your own. And you’ll be better prepared to attend the Plein Air Convention, which will make you a better painter.