En Plein Air: The trials and triumphs of plein air painting

Rick Brawner painting a rustic truck in a field. Submitted photo.

Recently, Rick Brawner and I were able to paint in the Cedarburg Wisconsin Plein Air Event. Every year in early spring, those of us who enjoy painting outside start thinking about this huge plein air festival that takes place in picturesque Cedarburg.

One goes with hope and paints for four or five days, and then it’s up to the people and the judges. The venue is magnificent and every year I discover some new place to paint.

This year I had an older woman come up and watch me paint. I asked her if she enjoyed watching plein air painting and it was obvious she did not know what I was talking about. I asked, “Do you know what plein air painting is?” and she thought it had something to do with painting kites. She was pleased when I explained to her what plein air painting is and left satisfied.

En plein air is a French expression meaning “open air.” Plein air artists try to capture their subject by painting in the natural light. Easy, you say? The artist has maybe one-and-a-half hours to capture the subject before the light changes.

Prior to plein air painting, most work was done inside, slowly, repeatedly going back with glazes, color changes and endless reviews. With the advent of small portable tubes of paint and the small French easel, artists were able to work in the field. The work became fresh and alive and art was forever changed. Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh all worked in this manner and today, as in the Door County Plein Air Festival, it has become a favorite way to paint for many artists. In the last 20 years there has been a tremendous increase in the interest in plein air painting.

I started painting in watercolor eight years ago and some of the frustration I had was a result of my medium. About six years ago, I was painting in the Dockside Quick Paint competition in the Door County Plein Air Festival. It was a Door County day with clouds, then sun, then more clouds.

As Randy Rasmussen says, “Funny hats are an integral part of the plein air experience.” Submitted photo.

I painted The Summertime Restaurant with a beautiful Subaru in front. A husband and wife watched me paint for at least half an hour and then asked how they could buy the painting. I told them it would be framed and in the tent by the art school [Peninsula School of Art]. We agreed on a price and I sat on my stool thinking, “Job well done.” The clouds turned darker and there was the rumble of thunder. Trouble. I packed my gear and maybe 30 steps later, the rain came down, hard.

By the time I got to the car (three blocks), the paper was half-soaked. Yes, I framed it, but it was a disaster. The Subaru looked like a warped Humvee but I was so charged up I put it on the easel. The husband and wife were nice enough to say they would find me next year. At that moment I knew I would start painting in oils.

Rick and I have painted in the Cedarburg event for the last two years, always with some things happening that you wish didn’t happen. This year, we were painting in the quick paint – two-and-a-half hours to get your painting finished, framed and turned in.

Mine was in and I noticed it was close to 11 am. Rick was way out in the street painting away in deep concentration. I sprinted to him, told him and he took off to frame and turn in the painting. I stayed out by his easel and he made it maybe two minutes late. Then there was the loss of the car keys (my fault) and on and on.

It is an incredible experience and I hope we will be back again to Cedarburg next year.

Rick Brawner’s work can be seen at Bay Art Gallery, 2477 Hwy. 42, Sister Bay and Randy’s work can be seen at AMO Gallery, 40 N. 3rd St., Sturgeon Bay and Bay Art Gallery, 2477 Hwy. 42, Sister Bay.