En Plein Air: For the Love of Light

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about dedicated plein air painters, it’s their love of light and the great lengths they’ll go to behold and/or paint the perfect light condition. I myself have been known to run off a road or two as I turn my head in amazement at a striking sunset or to run out of the room mid-conversation to go gawk at a particularly beautiful Golden Hour moment, and I know there are countless others who have done similar—usually much to the chagrin and confusion of the nonartists among them.

Laguna Coast
by Edgar Payne, ca. 1918, oil, 12 x 16.
Image courtesy Edenhurst Gallery, Palm Desert, California.

Perhaps the best historical case of Plein Air-itis (the uncontrollable urge to get outside and paint on a beautiful day) is the story of Edgar Payne, who, on the morning of his wedding to Elsie Palmer on November 9, 1912 asked his fiancee if she would mind calling the guests and rescheduling the wedding until later that day because “the light was perfect.” (Now that’s some serious dedication.)

I’d like to hear your stories of a particular instance where you abruptly ended a conversation, rescheduled an engagement (hopefully not your wedding), or maybe even risked your life to get a glance of, or paint, one of nature’s not-to-be-missed moments of beauty.


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Plein Air Painting Blog
Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

5 thoughts on “En Plein Air: For the Love of Light

  1. When I was working as a Lithographer in a Printing Business in Vienna I used to take my bike on Sunday morning to find old houses in the old section of Vienna. In 1947(not sure 1948) I found a little Street (Gasse) Fischergasse. I needed 2 Sundays to paint it with watercolors because I wanted to have the same light. !952 I painted again Fischergasse which should be a birthday gift for my sister who live in Dublin, Ireland. The funny thing of this story is that when I took a look at the dates of the first and the second painting, the second was painted on the same date and the same month only years later.
    My sister took a photo of Fischergasse whe it was framed and with a strong yellow cast. But, anyway i put it in my web site.

  2. It was a very cold winter morning–a lot of snow had fallen the night before. The sky was bright and the air very crisp. I knew exactly where I would paint. It was off the path in a near by park–I would be alone. Capturing the morning snow shadows. I remember how my feet started to get cold very quickly standing in the snow. I knew I had very little time before I would have to get back to my car and put the heat on. So I started to paint even more quickly. When out of no where, a morning walker showed up–off the path– (where I thought no one ever goes). Walks up to me and wants to have a lengthy conversation—-sigh. My painting morning was over at that point. However, I was not discouraged, because these are the things that may happen if you want to be a true Plein Air painter.

  3. It was the first big blizzard of the season last December. Three inches of show already on the ground and more coming down fast. I was SO excited: why not go paint a scene of a blizzard on the shoreline of Lake Michigan? From the parking lot, it was several blocks of hiking down a snowy trail to a grand overlook of Antrim Creek, emptying into Lake Michigan. The gigantic umbrella I’d lugged along, thinking it would shield my pallette from blowing snow, quickly proved useless. As I painted, whoosh! The wind caught the umbrella carrying bag and blew it down the steep hill, into the creek. Goodbye! I finished the painting and had to carry it, slipping and sliding up the trail to the car. As long as I was there, I figured I might as well do a second painting. This time I went right down to the water’s edge. Set up my Soltek right at the edge of the lake. Waves were bringing in freezing slush, right to my feet. The wind was so strong I had to hold onto the easel with my left hand the entire time. If I turned my head into the wind, it would be stung with freezing ice pellets. Somehow I managed to paint the scene: bleak sky, dark waves, slush along the rocks. Thought I must be crazy to do it, but I HAD to get out there and try it. Careful as I was to try and hold the finished painting, the wind flipped it out of both hands, where it landed face-down in the slush, inches from the water. Thank goodness it was oil paint! Looking back, it was fun. Would I do it again? Probably not.

  4. Last year I took a trip to Isle au Haut to paint. Because I was trekking on foot, I opted to take a very light weight aluminum easel with me. I found a perfect spot perched above a rocky crag. The light dancing on the water below and the rocks beneath me basked in light was too much to resist. I painted seated on a rock, my legs folded underneath me. Then it happened, I leaned forward for a split second, lost my balance and felt myself tipping forward. Unable to move my legs out from underneath me, I panicked and reached out for my aluminum easel desperately hoping that it would brace me and stop my falling forward. Thankfully it did just that. That little Winsor Newton aluminum easel essentially saved me from falling head first into the rocks and ocean below. As they say in Maine, I could have taken a wicked digger. I have had some instances that spooked me, but this one took the cake and made me totally respect my surroundings. I still take risks trying to paint that light, but now I am little more cautious.

  5. I was with a tour group in the Old City of Jerusalem many years ago and was sketching when the group moved on without me. To make a long story short, I was lost for three hours in the labyrinth of streets, and was finally escorted by three english speaking Israeli soldiers with their weapons in hand to safety. When I finally found my bus outside the walled city, the driver said only, “You artists always have your heads in the clouds.”