The term “plein air” is derived from the French, “open air,” and is used to describe painting that is done outdoors, directly from nature. Although some people associate it with Impressionism, plein air painting does not conform to any single style, subject, approach, or philosophy. This has been true historically, and it is still true today.
The most humble sketchbook or travel journal can deepen our appreciation of the places we visit, naturally causing us to linger and observe. In that way, even a simple plein air sketch can have great significance.
This little plein air gallery will give you some insight into Matthew’s approach to plein air painting and teaching philosophy. We hope you enjoy it.
Here’s an example of one of my studio paintings. It’s fairly large (30”x40”) and appears pretty tight in reproduction, but the washes are laid down loosely. I work much smaller enpleinair, and don’t add so many layers. I usually try to finish a pleinair watercolor in a couple of hours or less.
This is one of my favorite paintings from our 2015 Sojourn to Sestri Levante. One of the reasons I like it so much is that boats are such overdone, obvious subjects in watercolor. I went in knowing that, so my challenge was to paint a boat that wasn’t corny. I let plenty of the under-drawing show through, which I think adds to the watercolor’s freshness.
I enjoy returning to the same painting sites again and again. One of my favorites is along the rocks on the Bay of Silence in Sestri Levante on the Italian Riviera. I once thought I might run out of subjects there, but I seem to find something new every time.
I painted this watercolor in 2013 in one of the underground passages that run right through the walls of Lucca. I guess it might not fit some people’s definition of a pleinair painting since it was essentially painted “indoors.” I remember the mosquitoes were so bad that I had to quit and find some bug spray. Not the most pleasant of locations, but sometimes pleinair painters have to suffer a bit to get what they want.
The only watercolor I made that I was happy with on our 2015 Sojourn to Venice. I think it balances representation and looseness pretty well, plus my wife, Barbara, was drawing right next to me the whole time which made it a lot of fun.
I sometimes find myself tightening up a bit. Although I enjoy painting the looser, more brushy pieces, I try and let every pleinair painting decide what it needs to be. What I remember most about this piece, painted along Il Fosso in Lucca, was this cute little kid watching me paint and offering comments.
On the Bay of Silence in Sestri. This is about as loose as it gets for me — quick and a lot of fun. Many years ago I learned to concentrate on the process instead of the product. Interestingly enough, the paintings got better when I stopped trying to hit a home run each time. Painting for pleasure is what I try and emphasize on every Arts Sojourn.
Spoleto is one of my favorite Italian towns and the home of our 2014 Umbrian Sojourn. I’d wanted to paint this drain pipe near the Duomo many times, but the light was never right. What I like so much about this watercolor is how minimal it is — there’s not much paint on the page, but it says what it needs to say. I believe an artist should try to show the world something more than how pretty a subject is. In other words, it doesn’t take an artist to see the beauty in a sunset. A drain pipe might be another story.
Our hotel in Lucca sits along the via del Fosso — a street with a charming little canal down the middle. I painted this watercolor in 2015, but did this exact subject on a previous Sojourn in 2009. It was fun comparing them side by side when I got home.