KOKOMO, Ind. — Seated at a picnic table, Alex Townsend just about had the color of the Mississinewa Reservoir’s water mixed right. Then, clouds rolled in to cover the sun, and he was back to the drawing board, to tweak to just the right shade of blue green paint.
“Painting nature is one of the more challenging things to do,” said Townsend, from Tipton. “I’m used to working inside, where your subject stays still. You have to consider the light and how it changes your scene. I’ve come a long way as a painter in this class.”
Townsend and his classmates in an Indiana University Kokomo summer course have explored landscapes close to campus, and grown their talents as artists, in the plein air painting class.
Plein air is a French term that means out of doors and refers to the practice of painting entire finished pictures outside.
On this day, they are working on a small peninsula near the Lost Sister Trail, at the Frances Slocum State Recreation Area. Each artist found his or her own space on a small peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the Mississinewa Reservoir, to create their own impression of the view. A steady breeze ruffled the paper they use for sketching, and the sun played hide-and-seek in the clouds, making artwork more challenging.
Aaron Pickens, assistant professor of new media, art, and technology, strolled from artist to artist, offering individual critiques and advice, as the scenes began to take shape on canvases. The challenges of painting in a constantly changing environment are why he wanted to teach the class.
“Plein air is what really taught me to paint,” he said. “There’s something about being in a studio, you have all the time in the world, and you sometimes second guess yourself. Outdoors, the light changes quickly, so you don’t have time to second guess yourself. You have to start with the big picture, and get that down, and if you have time, you can add detail around your focal point. The rest can be impressionistic.”
Rachel Foster found her landscape closer to the water, seated on the grass, with a low easel set on the ground in front of her. She painted the water, and the rocky shore jutting up behind it, mixing her colors to match the changing light.
“I just like to look for a good composition in nature, and try my best to capture its beauty,” she said. “If you’re going into art, it’s a good experience to get you out of your comfort zone. I’ve learned a lot.”
Lauren Krause has enjoyed visiting new places around the area, since she hasn’t lived here long.
“When we’ve traveled to different places, I’m finding Kokomo is starting to feel more like home,” she said. “I’m finding all of these cool spots.”
She’s also growing as an artist.
“This class is very fast paced and adapting to the light and the surroundings is trickier outside than in a studio,” Krause said. “I’ve learned to adapt faster.”
As a future art teacher, Medora Oliver wanted to try plein air as an experience she might be able to share with students.
“I want to have as much experience in all types of arts as possible, so I can pass that on to my students when I start teaching,” she said. “Most of our art classes are inside. Going out here and seeing how everything changes gives you a new perspective.”
The beauty of plein air painting is that the artist doesn’t spend a long time on it, so it’s OK if it doesn’t turn out as expected, Pickens said.
“You just do a lot of small paintings and churn them out,” he said. “You can analyze what you did, learn from it, and make corrections in the next one. Growth can be exponential with this kind of practice. I’m giving them what I’ve learned from my years of doing plein air, and then giving them the freedom to figure it out.”