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.
In this, its 30th year of exhibiting, the Organization of Kingston Women Artists (OKWA)
says that when it comes to public exhibition space, size does matter. “RESTRICTED in size” is the title of this month’s show at the WAG, which accommodates 26 works by OKWA members in its relatively small space. To make a point, artists were limited to submitting pieces no wider than 18”, but there were no restrictions on height.
“How do we respond when we have restrictions,” Mieke Van Geest, Co-President of OKWA, asks rhetorically. And then she affirms, “The exhibition is an example of artists’ creativity in response to imposed constraints.” Small plaques with artists’ statements accompany the artwork and, in reading each one, I learn that “restrictions” have been interpreted and expressed in many ways. For example, Carolyn Marshall, in Shhh! Quiet!, considers the auditory restriction of a visual medium, while Mary Peppard has picked up the theme of censorship as restriction in Fire! Fire! Meanwhile, Donna Brown, in Awakening, has self-imposed restrictions on colour and medium. The clay vessel fashioned by Sue Lyon (Limited Liberty) is, by definition, a restriction on its contents.
Some artists are physically restricted by a small studio where they produce only small works, and Sally Milne (Notre Dame and Chimney Pots), who works for part of the year in Paris, has transport restrictions for her canvases. Michele Reid, whose painting Confined is one of the taller pieces in the show, points to the challenge of verticality for landscape painters.
Peggy Morley (Cornwall Beach IV) and Jane Derby (Study) both agree that size restrictions are not always negative. “Working small is often a freeing experience,” writes Peggy. Jane writes that starting small is a good way to explore new ideas. And Donna, mentioned above, discovered that having fewer options makes for a more relaxing creative experience. I personally enjoyed the intimacy I felt in stepping closer to engage with the smallest of the works in this exhibition.
“But size does make a difference,” concludes Mieke, whose photograph entitled Rainy Night at Morrison’s could be reproduced in a larger size, she points out, with a vastly different impact. “Restrictions discourage full artistic expression.” And space is the issue.
For the last four years OKWA has made use of the new Tett Centre, a public space that suits the group’s needs, but has become prohibitively expensive in terms of rental and insurance costs. These, coupled with administrative complications, propelled OKWA to look for an alternative this year. Commercial galleries were not an option since they support their preferred stable of artists, while the Agnes and the Union Gallery operate with mandates that exclude organizations such as OKWA. “We need a downtown public space funded by the municipality,” maintains Mieke. She looks to the John Parrott Gallery in Belleville as a shining example.
With 13 members, OKWA was founded in 1989 at the tail end of the second wave of feminism. According to co-founder Jocelyn Purdie, there had been advances in women’s rights and freedoms, but the art world was one of many arenas that did not offer an equitable playing field. Now numbering 55, members are accepted by juried application. The group organizes workshops and art talks, and funds scholarships for young artists.
“Is OKWA still relevant today as a women-only organization?” I ask Mieke. “Members like it, and it works,” is her answer, but then she elaborates by saying many women still don’t have the confidence to push into the art world. OKWA provides a forum for mutual support. And provides exposure for women artists by mounting annual exhibitions.
The issue of gallery space is first and foremost on the minds of OKWA board members today. Michèle La Rose (Tribute to Van Gogh), sums up the situation in her statement: “Kingston could do much better."
RESTRICTED in size continues until October 27 with an opening reception on Sunday, October 6, 2-4pm.