Plein Air in Chestnut Hill – Take a Look at What Happened

I participated in the 3rd annual plein air painting competition in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia on Saturday, June 10. Here is what happened…

Chestnut Hill is a neighborhood about 15 minutes from my house. Though part of the city of Philadelphia, it very much thinks of itself as an entity and has an active business association that puts on lots of events such as this one. The main street is Germantown Avenue, lined with all kinds of shops. On a Saturday, it’s very busy with shoppers and pedestrians all day long.

We arrived a little after 8 AM and went to our spot in the 8500 block of the avenue.

I chose a spot in front of the Wells-Fargo bank. I thought it would be nice because of the trees (offering shade) and the fire hydrant, which meant no one could park in front of me and block my view.

The bank was closed, unusual for a Saturday, so I knew that I wouldn’t have to contend with traffic behind me, either. Also, we got quite a bit of amusement all day, watching how people went about figuring out the bank was not open – shaking the door handle, pretty much every person, plus a lot of peering into the interior through the door. We started off trying to warn people, but most did not hear us, and so we just let events take their course.

But I digress. I brought a table to work on, two 12″ x 18″ cradled boards that I had gessoed the day before, a selection of paints, water, brushes, rags…sun screen…

As you may know, I don’t mix paints, I work straight from the tube, so it pained me to have to cut down my color selection just to these favorites, but I had to do it in the interest of space.

I chose two views from my vantage point.

I planned to work on two pieces at once. I do this every time I paint – since I work in layers, and I work quickly, I have to make sure the layers dry before I paint over them, or the result is – mud. I find that if I work on a couple of pieces at a time, I don’t get myself into trouble.

Plus, I like the focus-switching it takes to do things this way. I think it helps me step back mentally, even if for just a little bit, and then when I return, I have the benefit of coming back with increased freshness. Even that small amount of time is meaningful.

All right. I set things up on my table. (Several people asked me during the day why I did not use an easel like the other painters. I got used to working flat on a table when I did fabric and collage work, and that’s that I like to do, was my answer.)

And I started right in.

I’ll show you the progression of each work as it went through the day. Here is the first one, the view to my right:

And here is the second one, the view to my right:

And the pieces as finished – these are same as #4 in the above groups, but larger.

The event was also a competition, and so the judge came by during the afternoon. I did not end up winning anything, but I appreciated it that he spent time talking to me about my work. I think that’s very important, for the judge to interact with the artist; I do not like a judge who stalks in, silently sweeps a gaze over the work, and then goes out, without a word.

When I finished, my husband and I sat back in the shade for a while and looked over the work, shown here with our every-faithful picnic cooler, a staple of every show we do. By this time I had moved the table into the shade – for the last parts of the painting, I didn’t need to look at the scenes but at the painting itself. It becomes self-referential as it nears completion – it needs to look right as its own entity, I find, rather than referring back to what inspired it from the outside.

 

At the end of the day, there was a nice reception inside a branch of the local bank who was one of the sponsors.

When I started the day, I had a couple of goals.

 

  • Stay unflustered while working in front of people, especially when they stopped to talk to me. I am used to dealing with people in relation to my art from my selling experiences, so it is not that I shy away from their notice. I do not have stage fright!

No, it is that when I paint, I really fall into a deep focus, and for me to come out of it takes some effort before I swim back up to the surface. Doing it again and again all day has bothered me in the past. I was determined to stay on track and yet enjoy talking to the people who stopped. And I was able to do so on this day. I had a lot of visitors and good conversations, and I was also able to complete my work. That was good.

  •  I wanted to edit the scenes I saw so that I stayed with the feeling that inspired me to choose them, to find the details or aspects in them that interested me, and to feel free to discard or distort the rest of it.

In the past plein airs I have done, I have gotten caught up in trying to depict the scene at the expense of enjoying painting. Since I don’t really care much about how much my paintings resemble reality in my usual work, I’ve been puzzled as to why such a thing becomes important in plein air painting. Pursuing that end has frozen up my fingers and mind in the past. I was determined not to go down that road again today.

I am pretty sure the majority of the other plein air painters would say that representing the scene is the major goal of the exercise. At least that is what I think from my observation of the work the other participants displayed at this and other events I’ve painted in. But for me, I wanted the scene to inspire me and to let me take it from there. In looking over my paintings, I feel that this year, I did meet this objective. And I felt more relaxed and happy while I was working. That was good, too.


I sold one painting right off my table – some people who had bought from me in the past came by, unaware that I would be there. I had not seen them in some time and I enjoyed catching up. We came to an arrangement for “Chance Meeting”. I named it for the occasion, and they took it home from the reception.

It is the experiences of such an event that matters. I rediscovered this truth at this plein air event.

Looking forward to next year!

My work on the table – my husband sitting next to it.
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18 thoughts on “Plein Air in Chestnut Hill – Take a Look at What Happened

  1. What an interesting approach to plein air painting! I had no idea that you didn’t mix colors. I’m blown away by that. It may take a bit for that to sink in. Your colors are so diverse and vibrant yet have a unity to each work that I didn’t know you could get using only paint straight out of the tube. I think this summer or fall I’m going to try more pleine air painting of my own. You continue to inspire me. What a happy event to sell a piece on the spot, too. Congratulations! Great paintings.

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    1. Thanks. No, I’ve never mixed paints, it takes time and I’ve never slowed down for it. The paints can mix on the surface if they are not dry, sometimes that does happen, but pretty much it’s a layering thing and how heavy or light I put the layers on top of each other.

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  2. Claudia sounds like you had a great day – and of course I agree with your whole approach – exact depiction is for photographs – paintings have a life of their own to show – thanks for sharing I enjoyed that.

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  3. I love that you start off using the scenes in front of you as the scaffolding for the paintings but then you feel your way through the painting and see what emerges. I am sorry that once again we did not make it along to this event. It clashed with the same commitment as last year. This is too busy a time of year. Maybe next year.

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  4. Ten out of ten all round. I think it’s very beneficial for art in general for artists to share their process, but I think it’s very daunting. Sounds as though your experiences have been mostly positive. Good for the judge to offer feedback. Can’t understand why somebody in a judging roll wouldn’t. I think artists are well aware that even for judges there is a personal preference element, but constructive criticism is usually welcome. And, chatting to your passing audience sounds both rewarding and refreshing. You’re a masterly advert for Plein Air!

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    1. Thank you. I think it’s important for people to see what artists do to produce their work, because in today’s world it is so easy to overlook the idea of having a skill or knowledge in a hands on kind of way. I also enjoyed the change of pace in working this way. A challenge.

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  5. I love that your husband is a partner in these experiences.
    I don’t mix paint much either. I used to have to try to mix paint to match colors when I did textiles, and I always disliked it. Layers are the way to go.
    I also agree with you about plein air painting. It should be your vision, no matter the source.
    I would say, a successful day! (K)

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    1. Yes, I am very fortunate that my husband has always enjoyed and supported my art things, not just me doing it, but willing to participate in the shows and so on. I think I’ve only done one show in 20 years he did not attend and that was because he was just out of the hospital. Anyway, I agree about mixing paint and trying to match something, even if it is a desired shade that you see in you head. Frustration results. I like to try things out and then amend them, so layers work for me. And I am happy that the day worked out as it did. Last year was frustrating because I let things get away from me, mostly because I didn’t have a plan to start with. This year, I felt more sure of what I was wanting to do and not directionless. I would try more plein air painting on my own, I think.

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    1. Thank you. Writing about it somehow makes me reflect on how things went and how I felt about it and the results. Plus, I always hope that it might inspire others to try whatever it is I am describing. I haven’t done too much plein air and I found it scary at first, but this time, I think I felt more at home with it and I’m feeling like trying it again on my own. There is a certain challenge to it I like.

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  6. Excellent! I love seeing the process and the end result. Everything you say makes much sense to me and I’m glad that you were pleased with this year’s event. And what you achieved to produce based on your not so very promising views is remarkable.

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    1. Yes, I love what you said about the not-promising views because I think this same thing every year that I have done this – the event is put on by the business association so of course we do our work on the shopping street, but…it is not inspiring to me in of itself. I think this year I got past it and found my own way. That was the best part of it, I think.

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