Plein air painting, or “open air painting” was popularized by French impressionist artists who left the stuffy studios that artists had inhabited for centuries and painted out in the natural light and fresh air. I’ve loved this style of painting since I learned to embrace it during my trip to Scotland and Iceland. To me, plein air feels like an extension of travel sketching.
I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube lately and Sarah Burns, an artist that I’ve been admiring lately, talked in one of her videos about attending her first plein air event. It sounded so fun and inspiring that I googled local events and found one that was happening at one of my favorite state parks in just a few weeks. I knew I had to go! I joined the Plein Air Washington Artists, got a free ticket to the event, and booked campsites for a couple of nights.
It took some preparation
I did something I’ve always wanted to do and bought an Etchr Satchel bag. This art bag is pretty much an art studio on the go, and can be used in a ton of different configurations in all sorts of environments. It debuted a few years ago, but the price tag always put me off of it. “My little zipper bag kit works just fine for me! Sitting on a rock on the side of a mountain hunched over a tiny sketchbook is the best way to paint! Why would I want anything else??” I told myself. Well, “I’m not getting any younger, and maybe there’s something to this” I finally said, and I bought it. And um.. let’s just say I quickly fell in love. I did a practice run with it in friends’ backyard and had the best time ever painting a random garden scene. I read articles about the best plein air techniques. I had to look like I knew what I was doing! I wanted to come out of the experience with more complete paintings than what I normally have in my sketchbooks. Those are casual (and wonderful) but I wanted these to be a little more robust.
The whole experience was fantastic
Spenser and I have camped out at Dosewallips State Park a bunch of times before. It’s one of our favorite spots because it’s not too far from home but it’s still out on the Olympic Peninsula so it feels far away. I had a list of potential spots I wanted to paint already in my head. We camped the night before and found the meet-up point before we cooked dinner. We also revisited the site of our first Washington Trails Association work party to see what it looked like now. That was another fun adventure that I’ll talk about sometime soon!
I did another little test run of the satchel at our campsite and did a weird little painting in my sketchbook of our camper.
At 10am on Thursday, I walked out to the wildlife observation structure and saw the umbrellas and easels of artists already hard at work. I felt a little like a kid joining a new class in school. I introduced myself and was instantly welcomed by these amazing artists! I set up my new Etchr Satchel and the oil painters were all instantly curious and delighted about the set up. I showed them a little bit about how it worked and what my plan was and then we all got back to work. I spent about two hours painting the colorful marshy grass with Hood Canal and the bluffs in the background. It was a perfectly clear day with super low tides, so there were dozens of people out digging for geoduck and clams. They all waved as they passed below the tower, and a few even came up to look at what we were working on and ask questions.
We broke for lunch around noon, right as I was finishing my first painting. Spenser and I ate our lunch at a picnic table in the shade and a few other ladies joined us and we chatted and got to know each other a bit. They’ve all been painting together for years and were already planning their next painting adventures.
Spenser and I had to swap campsites right after lunch, so I helped him go pack the trailer up and get into the new site (I was unable to book the same site for 2 consecutive nights… womp womp). It was getting hot out in the sun so I decided to retreat into the woods for the second half of the day. I decided I wanted to paint the Phantom Creek bridge, which was another part of the work that Spenser and I did with WTA back in March. I knew there was a beautiful flat spot off trail to paint, and I wanted to capture that meaningful spot.
Well, the spot looks very different this time of year than it did last time I was out here! I initially blasted past the spot because it was totally dry and I could have swore there was a second bridge. I hiked about a mile past it and decided that I was running out of time so I turned back to paint down there anyway. Turns out, it was the bridge, but the forest just felt so different last time I was there that it didn’t even register as the same place. Also the creek was now bone dry.
This painting felt a little more rushed due to the time crunch of moving campsites midday, hiking past the site, and more complex depth of color I wanted to build up.
I hiked back to the trailhead holding the still-damp painting in my hand and headed back to the meeting point again for our 3:30 throw down. Everybody lined up their paintings on the ground and spoke about them for a few seconds while the rest of us ooh’d and aahh’d. We wrapped up quickly because it was toasty in the sun, and headed over to the facilitator’s campsite for happy hour before dinner. We spent the evening shucking oysters, eating snacks, drinking wine, and telling art stories around the campfire.
I can’t wait to do it again!
I had so much fun hanging out with other artists, learning about their techniques and set ups, and making connections. I’ve probably said this before, but I often feel isolated as an artist, sitting alone in my studio and painting by myself. It was so nice to be out in the world and sharing my art with others who also love to make art. It was very energizing and affirming day! (But also exhausting!) I’m not sure I’m going to make it to any of their larger meetups before the end of the summer, but there might be a convenient pop-up event nearby that I can make it to.