Plein air painting is about being fine with pure chaos.
You can control what you want to paint. That’s it.
You can’t control the flurries of dust or flies. You can’t control the wind, which seems to be involved in a divine ploy with overzealous frisbee players. You can’t control the tourists who take photos of you. You can’t control that there is a wedding happening nearby. There will be people who don’t notice and people who notice, people who sneer and people who want to talk to you and tell you how cool art is. None of this can be predicted.
All of this is 100% fine. You can’t afford to get frustrated with the chaos of outdoor painting, or you will be a very unhappy person.
In my wildest dreams I never imagined I would end up living in our Nation’s Capitol. I’d lived in Colorado my entire life until the economy sank like the Titanic from 2008 - 2014. When the boat was halfway sunk my husband and I moved to Austin, Texas, which was a good place to find jobs. A few moves later we ended up here.
The rumors about people being rude on the East Coast aren’t true - I’ve met some of the friendliest and smartest cookies out here than anywhere. Yet, despite being buffered by smart and cool people, the winter in D.C. wrecked my spirit harder than any winter in Colorado. In the winter, the landscape turns into ice and sticks. It snows, and then it rains, on top of the snow. I can’t think of a more desolate moment than standing in heels and waiting for the metro to arrive in January in DC.
What happened to me? I used to cross-country ski in spandex.
Long story short - I am onboard to bask in the summer of D.C., and I figured there was no better way to do this than to paint some of the monuments around town.
Between the photos above and these photos, I ended up getting a Google Pixel 2 phone, which has an amazing camera. Like most new phone cameras, it makes your previous camera look like a Daguerrotype machine, and you wonder why you were living life so fuzzily before.
The Lincoln Memorial is fun to paint on the weekend, I found this spot in the shade and accidentally ended up in several people’s summer vacation stories, a wedding, and a girl scout troupe’s photo reel.
I also got a new portable easel shown above - a Dick Blick model with a simple foldable shape. It can be carried on a backpack while my husband and I bike around town.
The wooden Julian easel in the photo above is excellent, it doesn’t budge in the wind and it contains a full tray for sorting paints and brushes. The only issue with the Julian easel that it is strenuously portable - you can carry it while walking but not biking. Loaded with paint tubes, the Julian Easel weighs around 40 pounds, and has made me super buff. I’ve taken it on the metro and have sat with it at the Five Guys burger shop near McPherson Square station, covered in paint, slowly chewing on fries and sipping a massive soda in that completely transcendent, exhausted state of being that you get after running a marathon. There should be some kind of romanticized sport where Olympians walk around a city and carry an easel.
At one point in van Gogh’s journals, van Gogh is surprised because his doctor mistakes him for an iron worker, when actually all that van Gogh was doing was trekking across the country and carrying a giant easel with supplies. He would hammer his easel legs into the ground with 15 centimeter stakes to keep the easel steady in the wind. Painting en plein air is a centuries-long pain, probably the dumbest and smartest way to make good paintings. The only thing more physically demanding in art is painting large-scale murals.
It’s still true that it takes enormous amounts of energy and bravery to paint outside. Painting done in the studio might be nicer, but it is a bit less real, a bit less hardcore.
For any artist, there are always five thousand reasons to give up on art and go home. There are so many flies in the paint and so much wind!
Yet sometimes it is the sheer impossibility of everything that makes creative life worthwhile. The romance of plein air is the uphill battle in an avalanche of mounting imperfections. If you paint outdoors without losing your mind, you can probably do anything.