Plein-air painting is not for sissies, let’s just get that straight right now.
Why sit in a comfortable, climate-controlled studio, with actual furniture and an actual bathroom, when you can freeze, burn-up, blow away, be swarmed by Japanese tourists, trip on a tree root trying to get away, sprain your ankle, and drop your painting face-down on the grass?
It’s a reasonable question – and one I tried to answer recently during a weeklong workshop with the marvelous Jill Steenhuis. Jill is an American (and family friend) married to an Italian Frenchman she met while pursuing post-graduate art studies in France. Italian Frenchmen are an important part of post-graduate studies in France. Twenty-some years later they’ve raised three handsome boys in their wonderful restored farmhouse outside Aix-en-Provence, and life is good.
Off the subject of painting but I have to tell you that Jill – an accomplished horsewoman, show-jumper, foxhunter – has also raised a magnificent Selle Francais named Danilo Sauvage. I mean this is a serious horse, but he acts like a dog. She leaves the gate open and he wanders over to the neighbors, whose little girl writes notes and weaves them into his tail to bring back home to Jill. Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.
Some of you know I paint a little, but I am a novice. Between writing and, you know, LIFE, there’s not a lot of time to paint. This workshop is a huge luxury, and I am grateful, grateful to be here.
Jill discusses, and we make, our palettes. All these colors are exciting, some mixed and some from the tube. My teacher in California doesn’t let me have more than four, and I mix as I go. (She also does not let me run with scissors.)
Next, Jill does a demo. She has chosen a “motif” to paint by the terrace of her house, a frequent setting for her work.
On the blank canvas she begins a dance of color, light and shade. I have no effing idea what she is doing, but apparently she got it from Cezanne. I posted a video of Jill in action here on Instagram. It’s fun to watch.
She gets it almost-finished and does the final touches later in the studio.
Then it is time for us students to scout for a motif. I choose a small broccoli protruding from purple smudges resembling bird droppings.
Try again. Slightly less broccolish.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, but that doesn’t really apply to artists, who are crazy for other reasons – namely plein-air painting (more on that soon). Many good ones painted the same subject repeatedly and with fascinatingly different results. Andy Warhol of Jackie Kennedy, for example, and Cezanne of Mont Ste. Victoire, in whose environs we are this week.
Cezanne painted the daylights out of that mountain, and it was different every time.
Here are two:
He makes it look so easy.
I make it look so … pink. Here is mine, from a different perspective, hence the different shape. I cannot explain the color. Clearly I have confused the rocks with the rosé.
It is dark the night we finish painting the mountain, but darkness isn’t the half of it. There are all sorts of things to contend with when plein-air painting.
Like wishing you had gone to the bathroom before you left, like keeping your easel from falling down, your palette from blowing away, your canvas from getting wet, your canvas from getting dry, your seat from collapsing, your ankles from being eaten, your hair from your eyes, your hat on your head, your iced tea from falling over (or maybe that’s just me). By the time you figure all that out, it is time to stop. Provided of course you got even that far
Because before all that, you load up like 12 carloads of stuff into two cars. Then you get to where you are going, you unload the 12 carloads of stuff, you walk all over hell and back trying to figure out what to paint, then set up your easel having first earned engineering degree in easel-setting-up, then haul out palette, brushes, turpentine, rubbish bag, umbrella, iced tea even though it is cold as anything, etc. etc.
By then days have passed and you are naturally too exhausted to paint.
But it’s all very exhilarating…. I think.
Same view, same field, by teacher Jill:
The palettes after painting are as beautiful as the canvasses. Hers anyway.
If the elements overwhelm, you can paint in the studio. Preferably a welcoming and atmospheric space like this, modeled after Cezanne’s own, here built by Jill’s own – husband, that is – the sculptor and Renaissance man Sergio Ruffato.
Jill loves her art books, and every single one looks like it has been dragged behind a truck on the way to a Post-It party.
Sergio goes to the fish market, and Jill sets up a still life.
You think you are safe inside the house, but there are dangers there as well…
The answer to the question in paragraph 2? Because it’s fun, it puts you in nature and therefore next to the divine, and you love that.
To read more about Jill Steenhuis, her work, her book Art, Soul and Destiny, click HERE..
Coming soon… painting by the sea, and a close call with a boat trailer. A bientôt.
PS, The workshop was in May. It’s just taking me a while to report. Here is Postcard No 1, in case you missed… Anyway I am back home now