On a beautiful October afternoon several students in Nancy Steele’s Plein Air Painting class gather at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour. The sun is sparkling on the ripples in the water, and there’s a light breeze, not too cold. The first challenge of painting outdoors? Weather (check!). While they bask in the sun waiting for the others to arrive, Nancy talks to her students about the wispy clouds that striate the sky. “You can create that smoky swipe with complementary colours—orange and blue, or even better, purple and yellow.” She then encourages consideration of how the clouds change lower on the horizon. Plein air, a kind of alla prima (meaning “first pass”) painting, requires astute observation.
Challenge number 3 (after parking—check!) gets down to the nitty-gritty: finding a location free of obstacles that artists can commit to for a period of time. As Nancy and I scout out possibilities, she tells me that she lets what nabs her dictate where she might set up. We turn a corner away from the shore when she exclaims, “Look at that! That’s not so bad. “ What she is searching for is a vista, lights and darks, and colour. “That red door is screaming to be painted!”
Nancy, who works in oil, will frame a scene with her hands, then begin a painting by making directional lines in ultramarine and burnt umber, using a dry brush. At this stage she is creating a scaffolding for what she sees (but not the sky, which is constantly changing). Next she will lay on a wash—in effect an under painting—to give shape to the large masses, all the while wiping away paint until she is left with mid-tones.
Form and structure underpin a good plein air painting, stresses Nancy. Not surprisingly, she began her art practice as a potter and then turned to making jewellery and sculptural boxes. She started painting in the 1990s.
As Nancy walks around to offer her students advice, her comments cover a range of ideas, from achieving proportion to refining composition and creating depth. She uses words like direction, relationship, geometry, block, mass, shape, layers.
In her own work Nancy exploits these same ideas while searching for a point of interest. She observes and works through a painting, letting the information grow until she finds her way into a scene. “The focal point shifts,” she concedes.
A couple of Nancy’s students, who agree that working outdoors is a bonus, enjoy the challenge of painting a real scene that is ultimately not static. “Capturing a moment” is how they describe the task, which must be completed in the first pass. Not all student artists find the task to their liking, however. Sky and shadows change too quickly.
When not outside because of inclement weather, Nancy encourages her students to see interesting compositional opportunities in the surrounding arrangements in the KSOA studio-- dishes in the sink, for example, or light and dark patterns on the printmaking machines. This course comprises 10 classes, but students have the option of taking only five, and they can use any paint medium. Being indoors obviates a further challenge, that of setting up tools and easel for comfort and utility under outdoor conditions.
“What is the most difficult aspect of plein air painting?” I ask Nancy. Interestingly, she focuses on two that could equally well be roadblocks in any style of painting. The first involves creating a palette that works. Instead of putting random small dabs of all colours on a water-resistant surface (Plexiglass works well en plein air), Nancy advises organizing colours with cool and warm and light and dark in mind. Just as orderly should be the artistic process, which Nancy breaks down so the emphasis is on only a few elements at a time, in a particular sequence. “Humans are trained to pick up detail in order to be ready for fight or flight. The artist has to discover how to hold detail until the end.”
In September the KSOA offered local artists another opportunity to try their hand at (or continue their practice of) plein air painting during an annual weekend called Paint the Town, which this year took place in Barriefield. Nancy, for her part, is offering an alla prima portrait painting workshop the weekend of October 19-20.
PLEIN AIR INSIDE AND OUT WITH NANCY STEELE ends on November 20.