Canvas, Easel, Go! Plein Air Painting in Northern Michigan

Find a pretty landscape. Set up an easel and canvas. Hold your paintbrush and palette just so and … practice, practice, practice. You are now a plein air painter.

This article is featured in the June 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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The first time I saw plein air painters doing their thing near Traverse City, we were cycling the Leelanau Peninsula and were taking a break at picturesque Fishtown. A dozen painters had easels set up around the dock and historic buildings, and they were performing magic before my very eyes. I discovered it is possible to learn how to see with completely new eyes as one watches a plein air painter work. The artist looks for shadows, shapes, color, as they chase the light. These artists were part of an event called Leland Air, held in early August. The painters were so involved and focused, connecting to the landscape before them at levels few activities in life can achieve. They were oblivious to gawkers like myself. We stood a respectable distance away but were still able to watch their individual brush strokes being applied and could smell the rich oil paints. I could have stood watching for hours.

Photos by Cindy Ross

plein air painting

I have been a studio painter most of my life, have formal training as a fine arts painter, but have nearly always painted from photographs. I have been successful as an artist and am happy with my work, but have always wanted to learn to plein air paint.

The styles of working are completely different. The intimate, dynamic way an artist connects to the actual world while doing a plein air painting is nothing like the static, sterile relationship one has with a photograph. But in the studio, an artist has huge control—and that I loved. I realized that if I were to ever reach even mediocrity as a plein air painter, I would need solid advice and personal direction. I enrolled in a three-day class offered through the Glen Arbor Art Association with artist Joe Lombardo, who came highly recommended.

Joe is an adjunct professor at the Columbus College of Art and Design, in Ohio. He also studied landscape painting at the Burren College of Art in Ireland.

I purchased a few how-to plein air painting books online before the class and did a few paintings on my own. I was quickly reminded of why I abandoned plein air painting while in art school. It was hard and I was bad at it. But I love being outdoors, and I feel happiest when I am in nature, so plein air painting seemed like something I should be doing. It was evident, however, that I would need a master’s lead to set me on the right course. Joe sent a list of recommended paints, which I purchased. I made sure I had the appropriate brushes, canvases, solvent, and an easel on which to execute my masterpieces. I drove the 12 hours from my home in Pennsylvania to Glen Arbor and was eager to get painting.

plein air painting

Classes ran from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. Each lesson began with instruction and a demonstration. Our first day was held at the historic Thoreson Farm at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Volunteers from the Glen Arbor Art Association have been working in partnership with the National Park Service to restore the buildings and turn the farmstead into an education center.

The 10 students pulled up chairs inside the rehabilitated equipment shed, which now serves as a classroom and studio space and settled in for a demo. Joe wheeled out the chalkboard and taught us the steps to building a painting. Then he laid out his paints and began accessing the views before him, looking for an exciting scene to create on his canvas. He took his two hands and with his thumbs and forefingers (“You always have them with you”) made a rectangular window, a viewfinder, which he moved around the landscape, creating horizontal and vertical views. He next grabbed a wide Filbert brush and began “air” painting. (“Like magic dust.”) He looked a bit comical as he enthusiastically traced the movement and lines of the scene before him. Then he made three thumbnail sketches on a sheet of paper as he searched for his ideal composition.

We learned to tone a canvas, block in using big brushes, work loosely, and mix color pools. Joe bounced about, scribbling and doing what he calls “cheerleading moves,” as he applied “little plops of color.” He spoke to us the entire time he worked. Everything that was on his mind poured out, so there was never any doubt about what he was doing or why. “Everything you hear, I am thinking,” he said, and we appreciated that.

We learned about the appearance of air and the rules to make it happen, like creating more contrast and crisp edges in the foreground as opposed to fuzzy, cooler colors in the distance. I appreciated Joe’s style, with his Italian heritage and outgoing demonstrative way of communicating. Making the experience even better: he is an outstanding artist. The strokes he applied were breathtaking.

A plein air painting is supposed to happen in one to three hours, Joe told us. “Honestly, in one and a half.”

plein air painting

After Joe’s demonstration, we were excited to begin work on our own canvases, yet I was unconvinced I could make anything beyond a piece of junk.

We dispersed to our separate spaces, some painters back to back, others far apart—wherever a scene spoke to us. We mixed up buttery paints with a palette knife and arranged them in an orderly arc around our disposable palette. When you set up to make a plein air painting, you deal with uneven ground, wind blowing your canvas over, or your whole easel, as well as dumping your palette upside down on the grass or sand (happened to our teacher!). All of these conditions complicate your success.

We followed the steps we’d been taught. Some of us felt like we hit road-blocks early on and had imperative questions to ask our sage instructor before we could confidently continue (yours truly). Joe traveled around to each of us, stopping to comment, offer direction, reinforce and support us. He gave us the boost we needed to think we could do this.

Joe taught us to leave “breathing holes” between spots of color; to establish an “eye path”; to test our colors before committing and mixing up a batch; to squint so we could blur the edges and see the large shapes. I worked at being loose, reckless, extravagant and bold with my color choice, and painted with intent. One thing that I have always done in the studio is mix and blend on the canvas itself. That is against all plein air painting rules. Deliberate color choice, deliberate marks, is the mantra. I have done most of my painting by instinct all these years. Now I was supposed to think about every stroke I put down, and it felt foreign.

Part of the fun of taking a plein air painting class is, while stepping back and taking a break from your own work, making the rounds to check on your comrades and see how they are doing. It was fascinating to observe what element of the scene or the lesson excited each painter, compare the different ways each painter interpreted what Joe had instructed, and how they personally proceeded to create a painting with those instructions. Most of the students had painted before, but very few considered themselves professional. They were a very welcoming group. All our visions and abilities were greatly varied.

plein air painting

Day Two found us painting at Sunset Beach in the national lakeshore, except we were not painting the sunset. A dense, dark spruce forest hugged the edge of the dunes by the parking lot, so as subject matter, students had a choice of painting the woods or the beach and sand dunes. I chose a scene looking down the dunes across the beach to the lake, but had to set up on the landing of the stairs that descended from the parking lot to the beach. Numerous visitors passed by me and observed my work and commented. Of course they all had nice things to say, and it helped reveal how big this moment was to me. Here I was, painting on the canvas, being the plein air painter, my observers thinking positive thoughts of my work, which they got to observe just like I observed others three years ago in Fishtown.

Day Three found us back at the Thoreson Farm learning about painting architecture in a landscape. By this last day, we were really starting to feel comfortable in our new role as plein air painters.

But though the course was ending, we were, in effect, just starting. Even if we learn the basic techniques and concrete steps of plein air painting from an excellent painter and excellent teacher like Joe, we must practice, practice, practice. The good news: success should come. I concluded that if I made a goal to paint a plein air painting every day for a year, I might get to the point where I really liked my work.

I returned home and instead of following my painting goal, got busy and consumed with the things that I “ought” to do, not necessarily what I wanted to do. Joe Lombardo couldn’t make us go home and become dedicated plein air painters. He could only give us the confidence and the tools to help us believe that we can, which he successfully accomplished. I left Glen Arbor liking my paintings enough to frame one or two, and hang them on our wall. And I remain excited to continue practicing my new skills, thanks to a great teacher.

plein air painting

Plein Air Paint Outs

Think of plein air paint outs as landscape painting’s extreme sport. Typically, this is how they work: at registration artists are given canvasses stamped with the date on the back. At Go Time, they fan out into the landscape and paint like the clock is ticking, because it is. At the prearranged Put Down Your Brush time, they load up their wet canvases and take them to a reception where they are put up for sale—amid wine, hors’ d’oeuvres and a joyous chatter of stories from the field and commentary on the art. With its world-class scenery, Northern Michigan was created for plein air paint outs.

Check out these events:

Leland Air
The Old Art Building, Leelanau Community Cultural Center, Leland
May 27, 2017 (We know this date has passed, but watch for the event next year!)
The Leelanau Community Cultural Center (LLCC at The Old Art Building) invites artists to participate in a day of painting and drawing on locations in and around picturesque Leland. The subject matter is historic Fishtown, panoramic views of orchards and vineyards, spectacular terrain, and beautiful beaches.

Throughout July and August, Painting On Location is held twice a week, with each class at a different location in Leelanau County. The first class meets in the Old Art Building, in Leland (231.256.9726). Call the Old Art Building for schedule and pricing, oldartbuilding.com.

Plein Air Weekend
Glen Arbor, August 3–5, 2017
This Glen Arbor Art Association event (one of the state’s most popular) spreads over three peak summer days in this idyllic resort town surrounded by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The event offers two mini paint outs (Thursday’s Sundowner paint out; Friday’s Quick Draw and sale) and the gala Saturday Paint Out and sales reception. Look for more plein air weekend events scheduled for this summer. For more information: glenarborart.org.

Cindy Ross is an outdoor travel writer and artist living in Pennsylvania. [email protected]


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