Hooked on Plein Air • Area artists capture the moment on canvas
Author: Linda S. Hopkins
En plein air: a French expression which means “in the open air,” used to describe the act of painting outdoors.
What could possibly possess an artist to don snake boots and wade out into a Lowcountry marsh, schlepping a paint box and portable easel, only to endure scorching heat and do battle with hoards of no-see-ums while trying to render a landscape on canvas? Why not just take a quick snapshot and paint in the comfort of an air-conditioned studio?
In her essay, “Understanding Plein Air,” Ohio artist, Rebecca Grantham (rebeccagrantham.com) explains: “The difference between working en plein air or from a photograph is akin to the difference between seeing your favorite band live in concert or listening to a CD.”
Local artist, Barbara Benedict whole-heartedly agrees. “Painting outside is unlike anything you can imagine. “When you paint a picture of sunset from a photograph, it’s never going to compare to the real thing. The immediacy of actually painting outside when you’re looking at it is much more glowing and accurate. It just captures the moment so much better.”
Benedict, founder of the Low Country Plein Air Society, who describes painting as “an evolution of skill and senses,” prefers the spontaneity of onsite painting. “My earliest work was all done from photographs in the studio, but the experience of plein air painting was the catalyst which changed my perceptions of light and color,” she said. “Now, any studio paintings I do have their roots in plein air studies. To capture that one moment in time when light, atmosphere and mood all come together remains my goal.”
The source of inspiration
A self-taught artist who divides her time between Cleveland, Ohio and Hilton Head Island, Benedict was delighted to find such an active art community here. Her wish to be a part of that, along with her appreciation of the natural beauty surrounding the Lowcountry, fueled her desire to form the Low Country Plein Air Society. By organizing group “paint-outs,” she helps promote the practice among area artists who interact and learn from one another, while encouraging others—including beginners—to discover the joy of outdoor painting.
A lot of people really want to try plein air painting but find it a little disconcerting to think of casual observers looking over their shoulder, Benedict explained. “I think people who are beginning find it particularly unsettling,” she said. “But everybody starts somewhere.”
Beyond the peanut gallery, plein air painters are faced with the challenges of constantly changing light and unpredictable weather conditions, not to mention bugs and other annoying creatures of nature. But according to those who participate, the experience is worth any inconvenience. “Some may think it is too difficult and never try it. I hope to get you started,” said Benedict. “Once you try it, you will be hooked.”
The view finder
Most anywhere you look in the Lowcountry can become a perfect venue for plein air painting, but gaining access is one of the inherent challenges in our area. “I’ve located a lot of killer places,” said Benedict, adding that she’s not too shy about asking permission to paint in private plantations. “People have been very generous about opening up their properties,” she said.
Recent paint-outs have included such gorgeous vistas as Palmetto Bluff, Moss Creek, Rose Dhu, the Savannah squares, Shelter Cove Harbour and various Beaufort locations. Benedict is looking into trips to Charleston and the Jacksonville zoo, among others. “I hope to create a level of excitement among members—to move them past this, ‘I don’t want to drive more than 20 minutes,’ or ‘It’s too hot or too cold.’”
Her goal is to attract area artists to the local painting group, but more importantly, to promote the Lowcountry as a destination for artists. To that end, the Low Country Plein Air Society hosted its first competition in Bluffton this past May with 14 competitors. The next competition, slated for fall of 2010, is expected to draw much broader participation as Benedict will promote it nationwide via her Web site. (She has purchased the domain name, pleinaircompetition.com, and plans to have that site up sometime this summer.) “I would like to see this become more of a destination for artists all over the country who would like to compete in a plein air competition. The key to success, she says, is advance promotion and cash prizes, which she hopes to procure through sponsorships and donations. Future plans also include possible workshops and tie-ins with other local events such as garden tours and charity events.
“I started this for selfish reasons, but it has grown beyond what I thought. My motivation is far different now. I really think this is something that can help increase the awareness of Hilton Head as an artistic community. This is a destination for artists, and we have a lot of fine artists on the island. This will be just one more avenue to help increase that awareness.”
Join the group
Membership in the Low Country Plein Air Society is open to all artists who paint. (Photographers are not allowed.) The annual fee is $30, which covers costs associated with printing, communications, maintaining the Web site, promoting upcoming competitions, etc. In addition to participation in the paint-outs, members receive a discount for entry in the local competition and, in the future, will be invited to display their work in an annual exhibition. For more information, visit lowcountrypleinairsociety.com. Learn more about Barbara Benedict at barbarabenedictart.com.