Behind the Brush: Plein Air Perspective

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Local artists find fresh inspiration by getting out of the studio and into the great outdoors.

Not being limited to a studio but having the vastness of all outdoors as inspiration for the canvas has energized another generation of artists to pack up their paints and brushes and journey into nature. En Plein Air, which began in the 19th century, has seen a revitalization in the 21st century.

French Impressionists popularized painting “in the open air” and learned how to quickly calculate capturing natural light. Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Albert Sisley were    mid-19th century artists who advocated plein air. The movement migrated to America, first to California and settling in New York’s Hudson River Valley area, which was known for its natural quality – light.

With the invention of an extremely functional and practical tool, a tube for paint, painting outdoors was made viable for 19th century artists. The introduction of the field easel, or the French Box Easel, seems to have completed the requirements of tools. The field easel had a built-in paint box, palette and telescoping legs. It was the perfect field companion.

Several Georgia artists, and members of The Artisans Village Guild, are embracing Plein Air: Jeanne Trammel, Nancy Bolen, Linda Foster, and Dawn Kinney Martin. Their work can be found at the Artisans Village Art Gallery in downtown Eatonton.

Jeanne Trammel was a farm girl who grew up knowing there was not time for “going places.” With no Candy Crush or Wi-Fi beaming channels to the family television, Trammel had to create her own fun. Even as a child, she knew art was a passion that would always be with her. As a young woman, when she declared that she wanted to major in art, her mother firmly replied, “You are a female. You have a choice of being a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. Take your pick and stick with it.” Trammel spent 30 years teaching kindergarten, but her passion for art never left her. When she retired, she began her art career.

Plein air found Trammel when her art teacher planned international trips of “on location” sketching and painting. During a “walkabout” to observe sites, looking for the shadows and highlights, scrutinizing her surroundings each day, Trammel realized she was seeing nature’s offerings in a whole new way. She has not looked back.

From there, Trammel began perfecting her strongest plein air skill – being able to sketch and paint quickly, laying down the main components of the painting, adding shadows, and then filling in the finishing touches later.        

Trammel says her enthusiasm for plein air and art has not diminished since she was a young girl on the family’s farm. “There is no comparison (for either). Plein air gives me an entirely different perspective. When I have found the site that I will use, I am able to go to this place in my mind.”

“Plein air gives me an entirely different perspective. When I have found the site that I will use, I am able to go to this place in my mind.”

Jeanne Trammel

Nancy Bolen began painting about eight years ago. She has used acrylics and watercolors, but always comes back to oil paint. Plein air is a newfound passion for Bolen.

“Plein air helps me to react to the environment I am seeing, and from that, I am able to make quick decisions about whether to paint the scene or not,” she says.

Through plein air, Bolen says she is learning more about her strengths and weaknesses as an artist and finding encouragement along the way. Last year, Bolen participated in the Quick Draw during the Forgotten Coast Plein Air Event on St. George Island in Florida. In a quick draw, a plein air painting must be completed in two hours, and when Bolen finished, her painting sold. “What a great encouragement,” she says.

Bolen’s one complaint about painting is shared by many artists – making time to paint and honoring that commitment. Recognizing her limits, Bolen has had to turn down opportunities, but the reward, she says, is time in her studio.

“Plein air helps me to react to the environment I am seeing.”

Nancy Bolen

Linda Foster is the past president of The Artisans Village Guild and a tremendous supporter of plein air. After retiring from practicing law in 2014, Foster began her career as an artist. She took art classes from Dawn Kinney Martin, an award-winning artist in Atlanta. Dawn is a talented plein air artist and encouraged Foster to try plein air.

Always upbeat and positive, Foster’s enthusiasm for plein air has yet to diminish. Enthusiasm, she says, is her strongest skill as an artist. Painting outdoors does have its drawbacks: heat, cold, bugs, rain, and more bugs. But, as Foster pointed out, “Nothing in studio is as exhilarating as painting outside. Vivid color, dimension, perspective, and nature, it’s all there.” With such qualities, choosing a site could be rather daunting. Foster says she looks for something, the right thing, that captures her imagination and makes that her focal point. Plein air gives her all the reason she needs to be outdoors, enjoying the company of fellow painters and focusing on the enjoyment she receives from painting. “I continue to be amazed that most of the time I can start with a white substrate and end with something I am pleased to frame,” says Foster.

“Nothing in studio is as exhilarating as painting outside. Vivid color, dimension, perspective, and nature, it’s all there.”

Linda Foster

Dawn Kinney Martin graduated from UGA with a degree in painting more than 20 years ago and has been painting and teaching since. She focuses on plein air, studio paintings, and teaching. In 2003, she began using the palette knife, bringing paintings to life through her newfound skill.                                                                                                                                      

When Martin is home, she may load up her bicycle with supplies and take a couple of plein air days. She tries to limit herself to paint for three hours and then head home. “The light changes and it is so easy for me to get tunnel vision,” admits Martin.

She says she almost never uses a camera to catch the light at different stages of a painting.  Her goal is to have the light and focus of her painting established before she leaves her site. Martin says plein air “creates a sense of immediacy; quickly deciding what the painting is about, setting the composition, capturing the most important elements of the painting and letting the rest fall away.” It is that sense of immediacy that she is always trying to bring into her studio work. “Light and color in nature are alive and changing” she says. “Painting on location adds to my ongoing discovery of new possibilities.”

Plein air asks the artist to become part of the stage, to absorb the offerings of nature, and to reveal the wonder and beauty and mystery to those who look upon the artist’s painting. 

  • Julia Owens manages the Artisans Village Art Gallery in downtown Eatonton. For more details, visit theartisansvillage.org.         

The Artisans Village Guild is sponsoring a Plein Air weekend, May 1-3. Dawn Kinney Martin and Ed Cahill will be guest artists, painting on location in Eatonton and Greensboro, and conducting workshops on Saturday. Advanced registration is suggested. Visit theartisansvillageguild.com for complete information about the event and registrations forms.

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