“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” the late Stephen Hawking famously said.
When you’re hit by a daily wave of images and breaking headlines, it’s easy to forget to take heed of those words—to look up at the sky, contemplate the form of a tree branch, or project one’s imagination onto the surrounding environment. Yet the ubiquity of photography and the pervasiveness of our digital landscape have helped to renew interest in one of the most traditional forms of art, one that demands looking above all else: plein air painting.
“It’s an ancient practice,” said Yvette Deas, an artist who teaches plein air painting to students at Stanford University. Early humans rendered simple representations of their environments onto rocks and the walls of caves long before Claude Monet painted his water lilies. “We’re talking about our world, what’s around us, and how we feel in that environment,” she continued.
Photograph of Beau Carey by Andrew Ranville.
The rewards of painting outdoors are many, Deas said. It teaches you not only to look and be present, but also to embrace what can be uncomfortable environments or situations. Deas sometimes takes her students to the outdoor deck of a busy dive bar where they are faced with a continuously shifting environment, as well as unpredictable social encounters. “It’s an intense way to learn painting, with all this stimulus coming at you,” she said. “I remind them early: they are now performance artists.”
Across the U.S. and overseas, there are vast communities of Sunday painters that are attracted to this painting method for similar reasons: to better engage with their surroundings, for love of the craft, or to record moments they found beautiful. Santa Fe’s Plein Air Painting Convention and Expo, now in its seventh edition, draws hundreds of enthusiasts each year.
Professional artists are also drawn toward this method of painting in order to free up their hand, advance their understanding of color, ruminate on their place in the world, or connect with a community of like-minded artists—as our snapshot of the following eight artists shows.
B. 1980. Plein-air painting in France, Florida, Denmark, Massachusetts, New York, and more
Daniel Heidkamp, Upstate Autumn, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Daniel Heidkamp painting in upstate New York. Photo courtesy of the artist.
“On a windy day at the beach, a quick look shows the ocean’s horizon to be razor-sharp,” the artist told Artsy, “but on closer inspection, it’s an endless undulating ripple.” Daniel Heidkamp sometimes achieves a “trance-like state” as he observes such environmental phenomena and attempts to capture the palette, form, and light effects of his surroundings—transmuting them into quiet or riotously colorful, jewel-like compositions. His paintings might recreate the mauve shade that settles over a house at the edge of the sea, the pink glow on a wooden porch, or the grey-brown hue of a residential concrete block that melts into the watery shadow slanting across a tangerine-colored building.
Heidkamp has painted in landscapes from the cape of northeastern Massachusetts to the French countryside, where the 19th-century Barbizon School—a profound influence on his work—once capitalized on the invention of portable paint tubes and made plein air painting famous.
In many cases, observational painting supersedes photography in its ability to represent the experience of a place, the quality of light, or shifts in the weather, the artist says. Allowing the elements to intervene in the work is part of the process: When raindrops land on his canvas, they might add to the pigment’s texture, or in winter, a shivering hand may inflect his brush with a nuanced quiver.
In 2017, when the solar eclipse arrived in New York, subtly tweaking the complexion of the sky, Heidkamp worked quickly to replicate its disquieting aura. “The strange, almost olive light of the eclipse was a challenge to capture—but best expressed through paint,” he said.
Ragnar Kjartansson painting Architecture and Morality (2016) in the West Bank, Israel/ Palestine. Photo by Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, courtesy of the artist.
For Ragnar Kjartansson, plein air painting is both a blissful pastime and a curious performance of masculinity. Better known for durational performance pieces and videos (one involves his mother spitting repeatedly in his face), the artist found early inspiration in the compositions of Elizabeth Peyton, and originally trained as a painter. “This idea of ‘the painter,’ the feeling of painting, I always thought it was a very beautiful ritual,” he said.
In 2008, he created a performance piece, The Blossoming Trees, which was an ironic exploration of the mythology surrounding the creative process. He went to the landscape associated with the famously romantic painters of America’s Hudson River School, installing his painting equipment in the Gilded Age Rokeby mansion in upstate New York, and set about painting the trees and spring blossoms. “It was about playing with these macho ideas of the plein air painters,” he said. “Painting in the sun in a 19th-century manson. Smoking cigars and reading Lolita in the evenings.”
Since then, the artist has painted en plein air in Iceland and in the politically conflicted territory of the West Bank, which most nations consider to be occupied territories. “They’re the ones I’m most proud of,” Kjartansson said of the latter series. “Those were extreme conditions: the heat and a nervous situation where you’re just trying to do this super-innocent thing of being a Sunday painter, but there are people with machine guns.”
Back at home, making art en plein air has become something of a romantic bonding exercise between Kjartansson and his father. “It’s always been a way for us to communicate, because we’re both very hyper characters,” he explained with a laugh. “We cannot really talk. It’s only in those moments when we’re painting by the sea that we can talk very candidly.” One series they completed together, “The Raging Pornographic Sea” (2014), consists of small drawings by him and his father, as well as paintings by Kjartansson that show tempestuous swells of ocean in shades of midnight blue.
For Kjartansson, plein air paintings are records of memories. “They’re about the surroundings and the moment when they’re made,” he said. “When you’re painting outside, it takes the preciousness out of it. You’ve got to do it, like you’ve got to mop the floor. It’s my favorite thing!”
Beau Carey has a taste for difficult conditions: For 12 years, the artist has painted in all kinds of environments from the Arctic to the desert, and even on a 10-foot raft floating in the middle of Lake Superior. Once he’s settled on a spot, he’ll work on a composition for anything from two to eight hours. “In the studio I control every variable—the temperature, the light, the music,” he said. “When I work in the field, all those variables dramatically assert themselves. You can tell when I’m painting with mittens on. Or when it’s really windy out here in the desert, because there are leaves and dust stuck in the painting. And those little interventions in the work tell something about a place that a sketch or photo can’t.”
Carey got his first introduction to painting on the fly when he took a class at the University of New Mexico called “Wilderness Studio.” “It was about making your studio mobile,” he recalled. “It was kind of essential when I graduated because I didn’t have a studio, and it helped me realize I didn’t need one.” Now, the artist believes he can paint just about anywhere.
He rarely selects his locations for their aesthetic value; rather, he is drawn to environments for their conceptual underpinnings, such as a wildlife refuge outside Denver that was formerly a Superfund site (and one of the most polluted places in the country). Carey is also drawn to the Arctic for its remote, almost abstract place in the human imagination, despite its very concrete relationship to one of the greatest perils facing our species: climate change.
Among the paintings he created in those sub-zero temperatures is one called Northern Lights. “It was 20 or 25 below,” he said. “I mix my paints with walnut oil so they don’t freeze—linseed oil freezes at negative four. That was the coldest painting I think I’ve ever made. It was an amazing experience.”
Melissa Brown, Fort Tryon Path, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Melissa Brown, Autumnal Equinox, Prospect Park, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
“It started out as a hobby, then it became more central,” said Melissa Brown, an artist who has painted outdoors for some seven years, transporting her travel-size plein air toolkit with her on vacations and work trips. She initially saw the method as a stopgap measure to better grasp the relationships between colors; now her studio paintings, which combine silkscreen, airbrush, and oil painting, regularly take their color palettes from the plein air paintings.
For Brown, painting outdoors provides not only a training ground for her studio works, but also a source of relaxation. “I find it extremely meditative in that it’s fleeting,” she said. “You have to make the painting within a really short timeframe.”
It also affords an opportunity to plumb the histories of local sites. That’s something she likes to demonstrate to the college students she sometimes teaches plein air painting to, taking them on field trips to New York parks. “The history of land ownership is a fascinating parallel to plein air painting,” she said. “When you’re in the north woods of Central Park, for instance, you’re standing at the site of an encampment of 10,000 American troops in the American Revolutionary War. A lot of New York parks were owned by old Dutch trading barons. A lot of them were Native American territories. It really throws time into relief.”
Melissa Brown, Guggenheim, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Melissa Brown, Randall’s Island, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Indeed, the artist views her plein air compositions as portals to a kind of time travel: A painting can invoke the experience of light, of weather, and of place in a way that is hard to capture with photography, she said. Yet the process of painting also brings one firmly into the present moment. “Given our immediate, fast digestion of culture and images, I find the impulse to observe nature and time passing to be really engaging,” said Brown. “I think that, in some ways, plein air painting is having a resurgence.”
For Tal R, what lies at the crux of plein air painting—and is something of a holy grail for artists—is the clash between the real world and human imagination. “The mind is megalomaniac, it always believes it has thousands of possibilities,” he said. “But the mind often walks in quite predictable patterns. That’s why you need reality.”
He had his first taste of making art outdoors as a teenager in Denmark, when he would go to a local cemetery and draw. Years later, in 2013, he embarked on a series of paintings, “Walk Towards Hare Hill,” which began as an excuse to take himself for a walk. Working on small pieces of cardboard or masonite in three unremarkable locations within a forest near his home, Tal R transformed the trees and undergrowth into brilliantly imaginative patterns that teeter on the edge of abstraction, speaking in a visual language that barely belongs to the real world. “The paint is just clinging to this world,” he said. “It actually desires to walk out of this world.”
This, he continued, is the “mathematical game that artists have been doing for centuries.” Nature is “an exaggerated mess,” one that humankind has always tried to reformulate into systems and patterns. “There are thousands of leaves, grass, all this different stuff out there,” he said. “So you have to just draw a line through all the stuff.”
Tal R, Walk towards Hare Hill, 2013. © Tal R. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.
Tal R, Walk towards Hare Hill, 2013. © Tal R. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.
If you want to learn something about art, Tal R believes you should look to amateur Sunday painters. “There is this great film of David Hockney painting outside,” he told Artsy. “It’s such a beautiful film. He’s very old, and he’s traveling around with these big canvases in such an awkward way. It’s windy and he’s trying to paint outside, almost falling all the time. This is meant in the best way, because I really adore him: He looks like an amateur. He looks like a great amateur, trying to paint in a landscape that for him means something, but for us is just flat, boring English landscape. Just flat, windy, and rainy.”
Plein air’s ability to make a mundane location noteworthy is also part of its appeal. “You can sit in a very special landscape in the south of China where all the mountains look like sugartops or underwater crystals, but you can also just sit in the most boring part. There is not much difference,” Tal R said. “It’s what touches you.”
B. 1961. Plein air painting in California, Korea, New York, Massachusetts, Bali, and Colombia
Nearly every Sunday since January 7, 2001, wherever he is in the world, Byron Kim takes out a 14-by-14-inch canvas—the maximum size he can fit in a carry-on bag—steps outside (or cracks open a window), and paints the daytime sky in tones of blue, white, and gray. He avoids sunrise or sunset, when the atmosphere calls for a whole spectrum of colors. He likes the more abstract effect of representing a close-up block of cerulean sky, or a pale blue afternoon veiled in wisps of cloud. The limited palette of his “Sunday Paintings” series also has another upside: By working fast, Kim has more time to spend with his family on the weekends.
When he’s finished, Kim writes over the painting’s surface, inscribing it with a few diaristic sentences in cursive: a couple of mundane thoughts, an observation about the sky or his process, a record of a momentous occasion. In his painting of January 20, 2009—a Tuesday—five sentences float lightly amid purplish and white bands of air: “Glad I waited until today to make this painting. Today we have a Black President. Glenn is among 2 million in D.C. Lisa and I watched the inauguration with Suzanne in Fort Greene. I cried when Aretha sang. Shepard Fairey is talking about his posters on Fresh Air.”
Kim has long referred to the series as his best work, even if many will know him more for the ongoing “Synecdoche” (1991–present), which has become almost synonymous with his name. (That series is an abstract take on portraiture composed of some 400 panels, monochromes that attempt to replicate the wide variety of human skin tones.) For Kim, as for others, the very act of plein air painting involves a bit of role-playing. “It’s a durational feat,” he said, “and showing about 100 of them recently at James Cohan Gallery, I realized they are conceptually more interesting than I’d thought.”
“I’m always trying to represent this vast expanse of sky, but then I’m sullying and adulterating it by writing directly onto the painting,” he said. “What I’m writing isn’t anything profound. ‘The car broke down yesterday,’ or ‘I gotta do this really fast because I wanna get to yoga class.’ One small part of a small life juxtaposed against everything.”
“Years ago, I used to drive around looking for places to paint, new motifs,” Lois Dodd said. “Now I just move a few feet this way and a few feet that way, according to the weather and the day and the time and so forth. So I don’t have to go anywhere, which is convenient, because I’m getting old.”
The 90-year-old Dodd has been painting plein air landscapes for decades. As a young woman, she met and worked alongside the artist Alex Katz, another painter known for his outdoor works. Together with their spouses, the artists spent summers living and painting in Maine, even opening a gallery there to showcase their work. (Dodd was also one of five artists to found the New York-based Tanager Gallery in 1952.) Over the years, she’s painted dense woods, leisurely cows, and near-abstract juxtapositions of tree branches and hills, among hundreds of other scenes.
Dodd is primarily drawn toward a strong composition, and has often found such visual clarity in the organic structure and framework of trees, or the horizontal and vertical lines of household windows—a common motif in her work. The frame of a window will often become the borderline of her painting, with its sash bars dividing the picture plane into a grid. She likes the play of interior and exterior space that windows afford. “I paint outside all summer long,” she said, “but in the winter, I look out the window. I used to go out a lot in the winter, too, but I’m getting more lazy. The window is such a convenient device!”
Part of the pleasure Dodd takes in observational painting, however, is spending time in the elements. “One time, I was sitting in the woods totally quietly, staring at the canvas, and off to the right of me, about 20 feet away, a little fox walked by,” she recalled. “Another time, I was out there on a boiling hot summer day, and a squirrel fell out of the tree and hit the ground. So he was just as dazed by the heat as I was.”
It’s moments like these that have stayed with Dodd, even as the visual details of her surroundings evade her. “I have no visual memory,” she said. “I need it right there in front of me to refer to. I couldn’t make anything up. I still can’t make anything up.”
Bruno Dunley, The Lake III, 2017. Photo by Will Wang. Courtesy of the artist.
Bruno Dunley, Indian Wells Beach I, 2016. Photo by Will Wang. Courtesy of the artist.
Last summer, the Brazilian artist Bruno Dunley was drawn to Long Island, New York, in search of an expanded color palette. To evolve his painting—which is typically abstract and sometimes includes words painted onto the canvas—he felt the need to “be within a naturally occuring chromatic phenomenon,” he said. According to an interview with Willem de Kooning he’d read, East Hampton was the site of intense color and light effects. So Dunley set off for a residency there in 2016, and grew fond of the sunsets that emerged from a few locations, in particular Napeague Harbor, Walking Dunes, and Indian Wells Beach.
“I was educated to believe that the sunset was a tacky image, an image of dubious character,” he said, referring to the endless proliferation of images of sunsets, which has given this celestial phenomenon a clichéd quality. Walking in the dunes one day, he encountered a sky that challenged that assumption. Composed of variations of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple, it sent Dunley into a deliriously giddy state—and brought him into an intense, unmediated relationship with the environment around him.
The compositions that emerged from this residency are at once direct, semi-abstract, and luminous in color. Napeague I shows cartoonish land masses floating in a shadowy lake, set off by a turquoise horizon line. Indian Wells Beach II is a quivering explosion of blues, pinks, yellows, and purples.
For Dunley, transfiguring sensations and observations drawn from the physical world into imagery is an impossible task. That’s what makes it so compelling. It’s a tension he sees as “the pain and the delight” of plein air painting.
Header image: Ragnar Kjartansson painting “Architecture and Morality, 2016, in Tel Aviv. Photo by Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. Courtesy of the artist.