Painting En Plein Air, 2012
Leave it to the painters to take something that’s perfectly simple and obvious and make it sound highfalutin!
When I asked my friend Walt the other day if there was anything interesting worth photographing in his city, he answered that a few of his art group friends were going to be painting en plein air out on Ferry Road at Little Creek.
Walt’s part of a group of artists who get together one night a week and chip in to pay for a model. Like many followers of Walt’s blog, I’ve enjoyed his illustrated recaps of these session, though to be honest I get the distinct impression that some of the members of the group go through the ritual of pulling out their easels, arranging their tubes of paint and throwing a few lines of color on the canvas just so that they can get to the part of the evening when they pack everything back up and go out drinking.
Still, I was intrigued by the idea of watching painters work en plein air. This is probably because I had a romanticized notion that I might watch a group of our own local Seurats paint their own interpretations of an après-midi on our own local Grande Jatte, albeit on Samedi instead of Dimanche.
I should mention that although I have photographed there before, Ferry Road is a minefield for photographers. It was once the bustling southern terminus for the car and railroad ferries that until the mid-1960s ran back and forth across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Today it’s a desolate little industrial road nestled between a Coast Guard station and a U.S. Navy amphibious base. In other words, most any direction you look there are lots of big gray ships and guns and lots of security-minded eyes looking back at you. (Believe me, all you have to do to get in trouble with these guys is look like you’re taking a picture of one of those big gray ships or even of something that has a big gray ship in the background.)
But that’s not the big revelation of the day. Let me tell you a thing or two about en plein air. Turns out it’s nothing but what we photographers do every day when she shoot outdoors. Doug and Bernard dutifully assembled their easels and arranged their brushes and paints. It being very cold on Saturday—temperature around freezing with wind chill well below that—each started with a little jumping and dancing around to warm up and keep their hands nimble. But aside from that bit of artistic gimmickry, painting en plein air didn’t appear to me to be any different than painting à l'intérieur or, as we less pretentious folk would say, indoors.
I’ll admit it was very interesting to watch how two different artists approached painting the same scene, in this case a string of old abandoned railroad cars in a field of tall grass. Despite Walt’s years of portraying his fellow drawing group members as drunken esthetic inferiors, I admire both artists’ work. Doug built his layers lightly, almost like watercolors. Bernard, on the other hand, applied thick dabs of primary colored pigment to the canvas.
By far, though, the most valuable service Doug and Bernard provided to Walt and me was distracting the railroad dick who drove by to see what was going on while Walt and I rambled all over the abandoned rail cars taking pictures.
Bernard’s Painting, 2012