I am not used to this. Waking up to birds instead of buses and cars— angry to work their 9 to 5. It is true that I missed home at first. The hustle and bustle and the roar of the freeway, the honk of a new enemy on the road. 

But I am quickly transitioning from city life to forest dwelling, embracing the early light and deer on my way to class. We keep the windows open even in these winter months where the cold is colder than anything back in Los Angeles; keep them open to the cold and the plein air.

What is ‘en plein air’? ‘En plein air’ translates to ‘the outdoors’ or ‘in the open air’ and is an artistic practice often linked to the impressionist movement, but has existed long before. En plein air is about translating wildness onto paper or canvas without transmuting it into something more palatable; more ‘indoors’.

In my own practice, I have struggled to subvert the image of an artist held in the public imagination. A man hunched over his desk; a woman straight backed, her canvas snug against an easel. To paint en plein air is to abandon these conventions, and to fully immerse oneself in a landscape.

I have yet to paint en plein air in Santa Cruz, and therefore have yet to feel totally artistically connected to the environment. My previous attempts had been essentially thumbnail sketches done in the Oregon cold, because I couldn’t stand the weather to work on them longer.

My first attempt at painting en plein air: summering in Manzanita, Oregon, 2019

An attempt at en plein air in the Porter courtyard.

I began with a sketch to make sure no one proportion was too off-kilter before diving in with watercolor. Working from life enables the painter to add significantly more detail, which can be their downfall. In my first painting this was precisely the case. This painting is too focused on being a correct portrayal of a real life scene instead of being a loose amalgamation of shapes, color, and light.

In my second attempt, I loosened up and focused on color. This day was windy, so the breeze dried my markings quicker than usual. This, along with the freezing cold, encouraged me to work looser and faster. I particularly focused on color and emphasized the foreground to prevent the “busy-ness” I saw in my first attempt.

You can’t tell, but it was really windy at Porter Meadows.

As I continue working en plein air in Santa Cruz, I hope to become more attuned to the environment as I learn to paint it. It is an exercise in stillness, in perseverance against the weather.

I learned to observe Santa Cruz in a slightly different way, as compositionally complicated and wild. I chose to paint a natural scene in the foreground, with industrial elements peeking through. 

Painting in the open air requires stamina and a focused mind, two things I hope to train. For now, I’ll appreciate the insights I made and share them with you, hoping you too will be inspired to paint en plein air.