Life in Plein Air

Hudson artist accepts challenge to paint one plein-air painting a day for an entire year

by Heidi Augustin Published:

By the time this issue of Hudson Monthly is tucked into your Hub and left in your mailbox, winter will hopefully have drawn up the last lashing tentacles of its polar vortices and retreated back above the arctic circle where it belongs. And no one will be happier to see the back end of this winter than Michelle Knapper. Knapper is a Hudson artist who made a promise, not only to herself, but right out loud on her 'Facebook' page, to paint one plein air painting a day for the entire year of 2014. That little sentence just trips right out there, doesn't it? But consider the reality of that vow.

Forget the mundane things we do every day -- the chores, the routines, even just the grooming. Imagine dropping some huge project into the middle of every day of your life. Something that takes anywhere from one to three hours to complete; that requires you to be both creative and disciplined; and it has to be done outside.

Knapper might just be the first person ever to embark upon such a project. According to her fiancee and partner, Joe Darvis, "this has never been done before, that we know of," he emphasizes. "We researched a bunch of data bases to see if anyone had ever done something like this before and we couldn't find any record of anyone doing this." Knapper laughs at this. "No artist would want to do this daily. It's a curse."

So, why? Why would this young woman who is also a master gardener and happens to be planning an August wedding, choose to submit herself to the punishing rigors of this year-long project. "I wanted to sharpen my skills as a painter. I wanted to get better at painting and the only way to get better at something is to practice. I thought if I painted every day, I would surely get better."

She chose quite a year to hone her skills outside. Since Jan. 1 there have been a record number of days where the temperature has remained below zero and weeks of snow. "I have painted snow, I have painted IN the snow, and snow is literally IN at least one of my paintings." Many days she has had to warm the canvas by brushing a dry brush against it to create friction so that the paint would stick to the surface. The unrelenting bone-deep cold has been a fierce obstacle in other ways as well. "The hardest tool to work with in the cold is the mind. You can't make the decisions required to make a great painting. All I can think is how can I get out of here."

En plein air is a French term that, when literally translated means 'in the open air'. It describes the practice, popularized in the 1870s, of artists leaving the confines of their studios and painting outside in the open air. By doing this, artists then and now must use all of their senses to concentrate on what they are painting in order to capture what is in front of them. Outside of their quiet studios, the plein air artist channels the sounds, sights, temperature, atmosphere into the piece they are painting. Often plein air work is begun outside and finished in the artist's studio where the light and temperature are steady and controllable. Not for Knapper. Each painting is started and finished outside, in one sitting. Or standing, right out there in the elements.

It wasn't even one of the coldest days of the year when Knapper set up her portable easel on the village Green to paint the door of the Hudson clock tower on March 5. Weather forecasters called for a relatively mild day, but at 27 degrees, its relativity to the ridiculously cold winter was purely theoretical.

Knapper began by taking a little viewer out of her pocket to scout out the subject for the day's painting. Her viewer is a small square of cardboard with a smaller square cut out in the middle. It acts as a virtual frame and helps her isolate the subject. "I have to choose carefully what I embark on since it has to be done in a day." She decided on the white door of the clock tower and the detailed ironwork scrolls that make the door a local icon. Darvis helped her set up her collapsible easel and prepare to paint. She fastened an 8-inch by 10-inch primed canvas to the easel and began to sketch a rough outline of the door and its frame.

"I was a drawing major at Kent State" she said, which explains how with just a few casual looking scribbles, she could sketch an immediately recognizable outline of the door.

She then began applying colors to the canvas -- describing the arch of the doorway in pink and grays, moving quickly on to the rusty reds of the bricks, and the yellows and grays of the snow and the door. In about an hour, she declared that the "underpainting" was done. The underpainting is the foundation that forms the composition of the painting. One of the most important things to capture, and what is the essence of plein air itself is light. Knapper explained that the underpainting had to be done quickly as it "has the light in it." Once the light values were translated onto the canvas, the details could be added.

While she worked the brilliant colors of the oil paints, Knapper explained why paintings are not always painted in a logical order. "You work the whole painting at once, not one thing at a time," she said, which explained why her brush flitted back and forth from palette to canvas, from the reddish black blob of paint in one corner of her palette to the grayish white smear in the middle, to the rich blackish blue. She mixed colors as she went, creating the subtle hues that brought texture and depth to the image that was steadily developing. She suggested the diagonal brickwork around the door with dark shading, and in the next stroke was bringing depth to the graying snow at the base of the tower. "The focal point of the painting is almost what you paint last," she elaborated, "most of the time you spend bringing the painting up to that central detail."

By the end of the first hour Knapper admitted that her feet were numb, but her hands seemed to be working just fine. By the beginning of the third hour, she was feeling the effects of the cold all over but calmly went about finishing the beautiful work of art. It is hard to imagine a more difficult winter to be a plein air painter and she confessed to even crying out of sheer frustration.

"Oh yeah," she laughed. "Especially the day the canvas fell face down into the snow... It was almost sunset and the painting of an abandoned farmhouse was almost done. I went to take a break in my car and a big wind came and knocked over my whole easel and canvas. It landed flat on the snow, smearing the paint and embedding a pine needle into the picture. That was it. Nothing could be done. I had to pick up the piece and go home." In keeping with the spirit of plein air, that piece will take it's place in the exhibition right next to the others. "There is no guarantee of perfection. Some you want to go back and work a little more on. It is hard to leave it as it is," she sighed.

While Knapper painted, Darvis kept up his end of their partnership by faithfully replenishing the paper towels she uses to clean her brush, photographing the progress, and recording the details of the day in a small notebook. He keeps a journal of the project which they plan to use to narrate the exhibition of the work at the end of the year and to accompany photos of the art in possibly a book. "I write the time, the location, and definitely the weather conditions every day."

At last, using the pointy edge of her brush, the only brush she used to paint the entire picture, she dipped into the black paint for the scroll. With a practiced flick of her hand, the curves suggesting the ironwork appeared on the door and the picture was declared finished. She carefully laid it on a paper towel in a clean pizza box to dry.

Knapper credits Kathy Johnson, owner of Hudson Fine Art and Framing with fostering her emerging interest in plein air painting. In 2012, Johnson invited Knapper to join other local artists in the Hudson Plein Air Paint-Out after seeing some of her early work. "I was so honored to be asked by Kathy to participate in this and even though I really hadn't painted in this form very much, she had faith in me," remembers Knapper. The plan is to hang all of the 8-inch by 10-inch canvases, perhaps in chronological order, at the end of the year at the gallery. While exact dates are not yet known, Hudson Fine Art and Framing will host this exhibition in January or February 2015.

Several of these winter-themed works can be seen at the gallery now as she has delivered a few of them to Johnson. The original pieces are available for 'reserve,' however customers may not take them home until after they are shown at the exhibition in 2015. For those who simply cannot wait that long, prints and stationery are available for immediate gratification through Knapper's website Michelleknapper.com.

Knapper recently won the People's Choice Award for her painting 'Hall of Mirrors' at Akron's Kaleidoscope Art Show. Winning awards for her work is not new to her. While attending Hudson High School and a member of the National Arts Honor Society, she won the Scholastic Art and Writing Gold Medal for her drawing of Levi's denim jackets. The work hung for a year in the Scholastic Arts and Writing Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Knapper is looking forward to comparing the first works of 2014 to the last ones of the year to see what progress she has made. Despite the challenges posed by nature, the year is special to her since it is the last year she will be in her twenties and she will be taking another vow in August to her fiancé Darvis. But practical matters aside, there is more to the project than just honing her skills. Her deep faith is reflected in her conviction that "we are not promised tomorrow. We have to get out there and live every day and not waste a day." She paraphrases Mark Twain when she says, "in 20 years, I don't want there to be more things that I regret NOT doing" And so, every day, out she goes, to paint and to hope for spring.v

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