Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Is Plein Air Painting Manly?

This past Friday I had the pleasure of joining a group of 10 guys for a weekend ranch trip about 8 miles south of Buffalo, Texas. Cool, sunny weather made for a great time of fishing, skeet shooting, boiled crawfish, steaks and even a little Texas Hold'em (which I had to quickly learn). Manly men doing manly things in the woods, as it were. And the location was a perfect place to get in some plein air painting with a small lake, an old barn, cows and wildflowers providing ample opportunities for subject matter. 

Usually when I paint outdoors I'm with like-minded souls that obviously think nothing of seeing someone setting up an easel on location. But with this bunch I unexpectedly felt a little self-conscious while traipsing around the fields and pastures looking for a place to set up my easel. Maybe it was because, of the 10 guys in the group I only knew about half of them so I wondered what they might be thinking about me.  There was this thought in my mind that I might seem like a loner... perhaps a little off (you know how artists are), or worst of all, was it manly to paint outdoors... did I mention I carried my sun-blocking umbrella and wore blue disposable gloves? Put it this way: while some of the guys are off shooting the crap out of a styrofoam cooler that had recently contained 40-pounds of FedX-delivered live crawfish, here I am painting a tree with distant cows chewing their cud. Or, while some dudes were holding an impromptu farting competition on the back deck of the house, I'm sketching an old barn amid wildflowers. Actually I'm only assuming that last part was going on...

Now don't get me wrong. I did fish... a lot. I did play some Holdem' and eat like a savage. About the only thing I didn't do was shoot skeet since I'm terrible at it. But somehow I'd never been so self-aware of my artistic tendencies and whether or not they might seem out-of-the-norm. Did I look like a freak? Are they whispering about me? In reality they probably didn't care a lick about anything I was doing, preoccupied with their own activities. 

After giving it some thought my mind quickly recalled the works of artists Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and-the-like, which helped to reassure myself that yes, you can be both an artist and a real man. Remington himself loved to paint "en plein air" and only his deteriorating health kept him bound to his studio in his later years. I doubt that anyone would consider him odd - not that I am comparing myself to a guy that has his own postage stamp. I then recalled the several male artist friends of mine that are quite manly in my estimation. Though just writing those words seems a little odd. But I happen to know a bunch of really "cool" artist dudes. 

It's a given that studio painting wouldn't seem strange for a man, but somehow painting outdoors among men-being-men at a ranch seemed different that day. Okay, so maybe I could have gone without the umbrella for once, even though it helps me keep my colors from getting out of whack from looking at them in bright sunlight... but they didn't know that. And they surely didn't consider that the little blue gloves I was wearing were for safety since some of the oils I use contain cadmium, which probably shouldn't be soaked into your skin. Umbrella, gloves... does it help that I chose not to wear my smock?

To be honest some of the guys were polite and even complimentary about the results of my efforts. Some even asked a few questions about them with genuine interest. But most seemed indifferent - which was to be expected with so much other cool stuff going on. And by no means did I find that offensive. Some guys are just not into art and that's okay. But I loved every minute of the weekend with a great bunch of dudes. The only thing keeping me from painting more was the great fishing. If this happens next year, count me in.

#80 - Ranch Cows - 9x12 oil on panel. 

I started my first painting of the trip Friday around 3pm. I set up just this side of a barbed-wire fence since I wasn't sure if the large bull on the other side was in the mood for any intrusions of culture (it's hard to run with art gear). Turns out that that bull was probably more of a threat to lick me than to rush me. But either way I was glad for the barrier between us. In spite of the title of this painting a large oak tree was my center of interest with sunny afternoon light creating nice long shadows. 

There was plenty of atmosphere between me and the distant trees, and meandering cattle walking in and out of the scene made for a fantastic subject. This is the type of time and place that will hook you into this "plein air" thing. The cattle remained in view for the entire session and didn't move-on until I crossed the fence to take a few reference photos for future paintings. The wind was relentless and cool, almost cold, but my easel held up well with no incidents. I finished about 2 hours later, just in time for some spicy boiled crawfish, sausage, corn-on-the-cob and new potatoes. An awesome end to an awesome day. 

#81 - Ranch Lake - 10x8 oil on panel

Morning light got me out for the second painting on day-2. A quick study of a sandy bank just across the water from the ranch house. Like the day before it was windy and cool. I was able to paint and cast a few plastic worms between brush strokes. And since painting, to me, is a lot like fishing, it was an ideal combination of two things I love to do. Painting and fishing both involve finding the right location, your tools are similar (rod and brush) and when you land a good one, the feelings you have are very similar - you can't wait to show it off. By the way, I caught several black bass, with a couple of them over 3 lbs. It turns out that shotguns blasting nearby don't necessarily hinder the fishing. I guess they get used to it.

#82 - Obligatory Ranch Barn - 9x12 oil on panel
Believe or not this is my first barn painting, at least that I can remember. Who hasn't painted a barn? Anyway, I set up around 2pm knowing that the right shadows would appear about an hour later because I had scouted it out the day before. I wanted the A-shaped roof to cast a shadow on the front of the barn to give it some depth and interest. 

Sometimes it's a good idea to plan your shadows for what you expect them to be later on. After a couple of hours I wrapped this one up and headed back to the house for a thick rib-eye, baked potatoes and something called "obligatory" ranch peas which was appropriate for the title of my last piece as well.

©2013 by Kent Brewer


  1. You are also forgetting the Impressionists who kind of made the whole plein air thing popular were all men. Most of them had wives, mistresses, illegitimate children, and drank a great deal, although maybe they didn't play Texas hold em. On the other hand to be honest, they probably didn't wear gloves to paint in.
    I really like how you painted the cows and the barn.
    P.S. Wearing the apron would have probably guaranteed that you were not invited back. Good call on that one.

  2. Heh, true... true... Thanks Doug
    (Doug is one of my "cool dude" fellow artists)


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