Gardens have been a favorite subject for artists since the beginning of time. Where else can such perfect subjects be found — subjects that flaunt their beauty and just beg to be painted?
They don’t charge a modeling fee, need no special costumes or make-up; sit still and pose for as long as the artist wants them to — unless, of course, the wind comes up, the light changes or it starts to rain. Those are the challenges for artists working “en plein aire.”
In the Puget Sound area, there are several plein aire groups for artists to join. Plein aire is simply a fancy French term for outdoors. Members of plein aire groups get together to share methods and techniques and to take field trips to paint together in the outdoors. Many are general naturalist painters who seek out beautiful spots to paint.
A lot of these artists are landscape painters who choose the smaller, intimate pictures that gardens afford. They paint the subjects they find in cultivated gardens: flowers, leaves, twigs, berries and trees, as well as the small creatures, such as butterflies, birds and insects, that populate gardens.
Strictly speaking, plein aire artists should begin and finish their work during one session. Realistically, this isn’t always possible due to unreliable weather in the Northwest. Some artists take photos of their subject so they will be able to complete the work in the studio if need be. Many make sketches while in the garden.
Small, portable canvases and large brushes are a must when painting outdoors because the artist needs to work quickly. In the mid 19th century, box easels, portable easels with telescopic legs and built-in paint storage became popular with the impressionists, who were breaking away from formal, studio painting. There is an obvious influence of the impressionists such as Monet, van Gogh and others on plein aire artists even today.
Traditionally, oil paints were the medium of choice but plein aire artists also use acrylics and watercolors. Pastels, a colored drawing medium made from pure colored pigment mixed with a binder to form a stick, seems to be a favorite of many plein aire artists because the colors are mixed directly on the paper rather than on the palette. (For more information about why artists like pastels, go to art-is-fun.com.)
This article highlights six local artists from the Peninsula Art League (PAL) and the work they have done in gardens en plein aire.
Though not pleased with her first attempts painting en plein aire, Pat Meras sees the value in beginning her garden and nature paintings on location even if she has to finish them in the studio. To her, the way natural light behaves outdoors is worth the challenge of wind, rain and other fickle situations afforded by nature.
Meras studied in Italy and Holland and her intuitive style has a definite impressionistic feel. She enjoys working with other plein aire artists and has traveled to Tuscany, Cornwall and Puerto Vallarta to paint.
She has worked in a wide variety of media but now is painting mostly in pastels. Her work has been featured in premier publications for pastel painters and in “An Enduring Legacy, Women Painters of Washington 1930-2005” and “Best of America Pastel Artists Volume ll.”
Kathy Thurston became serious about painting after her retirement from a nursing career. She has been one of the artists painting on site at the Gig Harbor Garden Tour.
Last February, she painted in LaConnor during the Daffodil Festival just before the pandemic hit.
“Luckily, I managed to take a lot of photographs and did four paintings of daffodils and tulips based on those photos as well as from my own garden over the last year,” she says.
She has found that solace is her art “from this topsy-turvy world we are now living in.” Sometimes, she brings in cut flowers from her own garden to paint. One of her favorite techniques is using Chinese ink and color on rice paper in a style called gongbi painting but the delicacy of these materials makes it difficult to paint outdoors. That’s where photography benefits her as an artist.
Thurston is president of the Gig Harbor Open Studio Tour and is hoping it will be able to take place this fall.
Although much of Lynn Guenard’s work is noted for its sense of nostalgia and whimsy, she also produces gorgeous and very painterly renditions of flowers and insects.
“I am intrigued with the idea of metamorphosis,” she says. “Reality can be difficult sometimes, so I prefer to reinvent it in my still life studies, adding fantasy, humor and objects of desire and interest. Changing or adding elements suggests transformation and allows me to tell a story or tell another side of a story.”
The rich color, pattern and texture in her paintings are inspired by her interest in retro printed fabrics, antique pottery and unconventional gardens. Guenard often combines unusual objects with plant materials such as flowers, leaves, vines and vegetables.
Although watercolor has long been her choice of medium, she has been more into acrylics lately. To really understand the variety and uniqueness of her work, check out her web page (see end of article).
Cathie Johnson’s style is generally impressionistic, and she works primarily in watercolor. She particularly enjoys combining colors on the paper, then refining and glazing over the initial layer of color to create a finished piece.
Johnson enjoys painting with groups of friends en plein aire; her “Artichoke” painting was done on a plein aire group outing to fellow artist Judy Cleghorn’s garden last summer.
For several years, Johnson has been the organizer of a group of artists who paint in the gardens during the annual Gig Harbor Garden Tour. These artists enjoy talking to the garden tourists and educating them about the joys of plein aire painting. Their paintings are later exhibited (and are usually on sale) at the Kimbal Street Bistro in Gig Harbor.
The Knapps’ garden is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, so being an “artist in the garden” comes naturally to Anne Knapp. She considers herself an impressionistic painter but with an abstract bent.
An avid plein aire artist, she enjoys working outdoors because “there is something so immediate and compelling when you are racing with the sun to capture the essence of a scene,” she says.
“It makes me faster and more intuitive with color choices to enhance the mood of a piece,” she adds.
Knapp has worked in many different media but likes pastels because of their ease of portability and control while offering a great range of color choices. Her garden was on the Gig Harbor Garden Tour and she has volunteered as one of the garden artists during several tours.
A teacher, she does artist residencies in the schools and teaches art workshops in her new studio.
Myrna Binion loves to paint in the Northwest landscape. She admits that painting outdoors is very difficult and sometimes it’s necessary to return to the same spot on subsequent days at the same hour. Even then, the situation may change enough to make it hard to recapture the original effect.
Binion says that most people who work outdoors take photos or make sketches to enable them to finish their work in the studio. Last year, Binion was asked to participate in the “Chair Affair” fundraiser for the NW Furniture Bank and, in keeping with her love of flowers, she painted a beautiful chair embellished with blue flowers and vines titled “Forget-Me-Not” to demonstrate the need to remember the people who need assistance.
Binion’s work can be seen at the Waters Edge Gallery, at the Kimball Coffee Shop and Gallery in Gig Harbor and at fineartamerica.com.
All the artists agree that 2020 has been a strange year due to the inability to show their work. Most of the summer art shows — such as the Gig Harbor Summer Art Festival, which usually takes place on the third weekend of July, and the Open Studio Tour in the fall — had to be cancelled. Though gallery work is on display, fewer people have been able to get out to visit galleries.
As the pandemic begins to get under control, check peninsulaartleague.com to find out if and when art shows and tours will be happening. Artists have had the time last year to paint in the outdoors and most have many canvases to show. If the Gig Harbor Garden Tour gets to happen this year, you may be able to see some of these artists “live and in color” — painting in the gardens en plein aire.