As summer turns to autumn, light and color change and scores of artists are turning out for events throughout the region to document it. Many are part of a resurgence of what is known as plein air painting. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.
The French Impressionists started plein air painting, which comes from the French term to paint in the open air. In the late 1800s, it took root in the United States through work by artists such as Guy Rose and Childe Hassam. But during much of the late 20th century it fell out of fashion. That’s changed.
On a sunny Wednesday, Marilyn Sadler opens the tripod for her easel to paint a scene of Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The view includes old buildings, stretches of stone and wooden fences and a few cows. From her bag, she plucks two plastic pill cases, but the compartments are full of paint.
“Cool colors go on one side. And the warm colors go on the other side,” Sadler says. “And they’re Velcroed to my open box.”
Sadler’s with the Plein Aire Painters of the Bluegrass, a group founded in 2004 that includes professionals and novices who paint scenes throughout central Kentucky. It also has critiques with established landscape painters and mounts exhibits. This fall, Sadler and other members are painting scenes from Shaker Village for the group’s fourth show here.
And similar groups have sprung up across the country since the Plein-Air Painters of America was founded in California in 1986. These groups and events they call “paint outs” are gaining a large following among artists. So says Joshua Rose, editor of American Art Collector magazine.
“Younger artists are kind of getting involved in it and it’s kind of led to resurgence,” Rose says. “These older people who’ve been doing it forever all the sudden are teaching more classes and getting involved at a higher level.”
Rose says plein air painting is popular among collectors in today’s art market where representational painting has gained a larger foothold. He says it also deepens our bonds with the natural world.
“I think we always have some kind of connection to the land,,” he says, “especially the land around us. And our interest in the environment is always evolving.”
That sentiment is echoed by artists from the region, which has its own groups. The Plein Air Painters of Kentucky and the Indiana Plein Air Painters Association were founded in 1998. The Indiana group has published two books since then (Painting Indiana: Portraits of Indiana’s 92 Counties and Painting Indiana II: The Changing Face of Agriculture) and today it helps fuel paint outs throughout the state.
Many members are at this paint out today at Hanover College where bursts of rain beat down on the campus. Nearly 100 painters have come to capture angles of groomed courtyards, old buildings and from a striking bluff overlooking the Ohio River. This is the third paint out assistant professor Rick Bennett has organized here since 2005. He’s painted scenes of the area himself and says he knew Hanover offered views that can produce quality paintings.
“You get really mindful of all the different nuances of color and even sound and smell,” Bennett says. “And when you try to express that directly through color rather than through thoughts or words then the paintings can be miserable failures, but every once in a while you get one that’s a successful painting and it really has a different kind of life than something you would do in the studio.”
Medrith Nuttle is a professional painter from Indianapolis who says she can relate. On this rainy morning, Nuttle set up her easel under an elevated veranda.
“‘Tell you the truth, this was one of the few places I could paint and not get rained on,” she says. “And there were nice views from every angle.”
Nuttle says it’s fun to paint in the rain because of its affects on light and color. She says she’s participated in many of the paint outs that have mushroomed around Indiana since 1988.
Brown County has two annual events at the former home of renowned artist T.C. Steele — who painted some of his most famous landscapes there a century ago. And there’s the annual First Brush of Spring paint out in New Harmony. It was started in 1999 by Indianapolis doctor and art collector George Rapp.
He says plein air painting evokes strong emotions for him and makes him more carefully consider familiar scenes. He talks about one painting he bought three years ago of an Amish buggy rolling through his hometown of New Harmony.
“Those buggies have been going by my house and everywhere else and I hear the horse clop, clop, clop — but I never really looked at it that closely until I saw the painting,” he says.
And Rapp says paint outs can bolster tourism by bringing artists together and drawing the public. They get to see art in the making, meet artists and even stimulate local economies when they purchase art and patronize local businesses. And in Kentucky, that idea is gaining ground: This weekend Bardstown hosts its first Brush with Bardstown, which was inspired by New Harmony’s event.