Putting the Air in Plein Air

I don’t care how many times I see Monet’s paintings, they never cease to inspire me. I just had the great pleasure of seeing the new Monet show at the Cincinnati Art Museum with my art buddies, and especially for those of us plein-air artists in the group, it was pure joy. As always, I was awestruck by his ability to capture the sensations of those places in those moments.

Beach Morning by Gavin Brooks, oil on canvas, 48 x 48.
Beach Morning by Gavin Brooks, oil on canvas, 48 x 48.

There was one painting in particular of the Seine in the early morning light that was exquisite, breathtaking. My friends and I just had to dissect how he was able to recreate the sense of atmosphere–of the air heavy with morning dew–in this painting. As soon as I came home, I poked around some of my favorite artists’ websites, and I found a few more atmospheric gems to study. Here’s what we came up with as the keys to painting air, better known as atmosphere.

1. Keep the value range limited to no more than five steps on the ten-step scale. Look at this beauty by Gavin Brooks called “Beach Morning.” The drama and the sense of atmosphere hang on the very narrow range of tonal values included in the outdoor painting.

Colorado Blvd., Pasadena by Frank Serrano, oil on canvas, 12 x 10.
Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
by Frank Serrano,
oil on canvas, 12 x 10.

2. Push warms and cools. Since tonal value is not the star of the show, guess what is–color. In an atmospheric painting, you have to have a good handle on the temperature of your light source, and then make sure you push the opposite temperature in the shadows. In both Gavin’s painting and “Colorado Blvd., Pasadena” by Frank Serrano, the artists’ supremely subtle handling of color temperature provides the interest and excitement.

3. Make those edges soft, soft, soft. Heavy, moisture-laden air, which is basically all atmosphere is, blurs the edges of everything, so you’ve got to make everything soft, even in the focal point.

Looking at these stunners makes me eager for spring, when the atmosphere will lend a special kind of beauty to even the most humble of landscape subjects for an inspiring plein air session. How about you?


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Jennifer King

About Jennifer King

Immersed in the art world is just where Jennifer King wants to be. Thanks to her long career in the art-instruction business--she was the editor of several leading artists' magazines--she has had incredible opportunities to meet and interview many of the finest living artists of our times, including Will Barnett, Clyde Aspevig, Scott Christensen, Sam Adoquei, Richard Schmid, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Ken Auster, Carla O’Connor, C.W. Mundy, Dan Gerhartz, Birgit O’Connor, Daniel Greene, and countless other generous artists who’ve shared their knowledge and insights. She is also honored to have edited several art-instruction books with such noted artists as Tom Lynch, Dan McCaw, Ramon Kelley, Wende Caporale, Carlton Plummer, and more.

Inspired by their passion for art, Jennifer returned to her own love of painting about 15 years ago, studying with figurative painter Tina Tammaro. Through this experience, she discovered her love of landscape painting, which for her, acts as a visual metaphor for human emotion. Constable, Corot, Pissarro, Inness, and Diebenkorn are among her artistic heroes. Other creative pursuits include photography and jewelry-making, and she’s also continuously studying art history and theory.

Jennifer paints primarily outdoors, but also in her home studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. She also continues to serve as a lecturer and competition juror for various art organizations across the country, and she is a member of the Women’s Art Club of Cincinnati. Jennifer is currently represented by the Greenwich House Gallery in O’Bryonville, a suburb of Cincinnati. As a confirmed landscape artist, her future goal is to use her experience in the art world to raise awareness for the need to protect our environment.

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