My experiences with plein air: staffer decides to try her hand at plein air painting

by April Helms special products editor Published:

My job puts me in contact with a variety of fascinating and talented people. A couple weekends ago, I had the opportunity to chat with several artists who were painting in plein air -- work done on location. These events, generally juried competitions, are popular in this area, with plein air competitions in Peninsula, downtown Akron and one sponsored by the Cuyahoga Valley Art Center, to name a few.

Indeed, I was mulling how to cover the one sponsored by the Cuyahoga Valley Art Center, which is located in downtown Cuyahoga Falls and has hosted this event for some time, and at the same time I was thinking how it might be neat to try creating a plein air piece myself, but wondering if I'd have the guts to actually do it. On one hand, I've done some limited work with acrylic and inexpensive canvas, and have been told I have some talent as an artist. On the other hand, there are many incredibly talented plein air artists (not to mention artists in other disciplines) in Northeast Ohio. I only dabble in art on occasion, and usually what I do are either illustrations or just images that pop into my mind.

Still, once the idea of trying my hand at a plein air piece took hold, it didn't let go, and I found myself thinking "ah, heck -- why not?" I figured if nothing else it would be enlightening, and if my efforts proved to resemble something that a hyperactive preschooler with fingerpaints created, well, it could make for a humorous column. A win-win!

So, on Sunday afternoon I grabbed a small, inexpensive canvas I've had since the early 90s, my tote box of acrylics and headed to the Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium, where there are several pretty Adopt-A-Spot gardens. I figured I'm at the Natatorium all the time anyway, so this was a natural choice. The weather was perfect: 70s, with a light breeze, and sunny. I selected one my favorite spots, set up my supplies and went to work. I know most plein air pieces capture whole landscapes but, while I was tempted to do a larger painting, I knew my limitations and decided to start small.

I'm very glad I did.

I knew there would be challenges; you have to work quickly with a plein air piece because of the vagaries of the sunlight. There's tricks to getting shadows and highlights, tricks to mixing the colors, knowing color theory, getting the proportions right, all of the technical aspects. I was aware of those. What I didn't realize until my attempt, however, is the discipline and tenacity -- not to mention patience -- one needs with plein air painting. I found myself getting a bit bored and frustrated after an embarrassingly short period of time. Still, I stuck with it for two hours -- about half the time I had planned to spend -- and managed to put something decent together before wrapping it up.

My honest assessment: well, my little dabble was better than preschool fingerpainting. You can tell that the colorful blobs are flowers and greenery. A lot of people even told me they thought it was nice, even pretty. In hindsight, I wonder if I might have been better off making my first attempt with colored pencils, or pencils and ink -- media I'm more comfortable and practiced with.

Plein air artists often spend hours -- sometimes even days -- on a piece. I don't know how they do it, but my hat is off to them. I guess one lesson learned: plein air just isn't my cup of tea, from a creative standpoint.

At any rate, I have no regrets with my attempts at plein air. I found it very educational, and my esteem for plein air artists has increased tenfold. Indeed, it cemented a long-held belief: education in the arts is crucial. Even if someone isn't good at an art form -- whether it be painting, sculpture, acting, singing, dancing, playing an instrument or the multitudes of other art expressions out there -- at least dabbling in that art increases the appreciation for the effort and skill required to do it well. I've witnessed and experienced this time and again. I look forward to seeing what other artistic challenges I might try in the future.

Now, to view some of the work of real plein artists:

The Cuyahoga Valley Art Center, at 2131 Front St., will have the winners' entries on exhibit through Aug. 30 in its Artists' Cafe. For details, call 330-928-8092 or visit www.cvartcenter.org.

Streetscapes: Akron in Plein Air, can be seen on the third floor of Summit Artspace, 140 E. Market St. in downtown Akron. For details, call 330-376-8480 or visit www.akronareaarts.org.

Email: ahelms@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9438

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