En Plein Air

By Rebecca Berfanger // Photography by April Knox
Southside artists enjoy challenge of working outdoors

Few things are as relaxing and meditative as contemplating a painting of a landscape. Sometimes an artist needs to be right in the middle of the landscape to truly paint it, to take in the pinks and blues of a cloud, the reds and browns of a rusty tractor, or the greens and yellows of a forest. In the thick of it all, a brush heavy with paint and an authentic setting can come together on the canvas.

It’s no wonder that southside artists enjoy pushing their limits artistically and sometimes physically — depending on whether it’s hot, cold, rainy or windy — to get outside to paint amid that very moment. Unlike studio work, this practice, known as plein air painting, results in an authentic, three-dimensional experience these artists say they just can’t find when working indoors with unnatural light or from a two-dimensional photograph.

“It’s very rewarding. You get in your zone, and everything else goes away,” says Corrine Hull, who sits on the board of the Indiana Plein Air Painters Association and is a recipient of numerous awards for her work. A Homecroft resident and lifelong painter, she explains that plein air painting first became popular among French artists in the 1860s. Artists headed outdoors thanks to changes in their supplies; synthetic paints became obtainable, paint could be transported in tubes and lighter easels could be carried into outdoor settings. Even today, many plein air painters pride themselves on being able to travel light and improvise when needed.

French movements, Hoosier style
Not long after the French were going outside to paint, Indiana saw its own painters producing masterpieces at the beginning of the 20th century: the Hoosier Group of the American impressionists, which included T.C. Steele, along with William Forsyth, J. Ottis Adams, Richard B. Gruelle and Otto Stark, also headed outside to work.

Like her artistic forebears, Hull has traveled for her art, in her case going as far away from Indiana as New Mexico and Maine for plein air painting opportunities. But she appreciates the variety in the Hoosier state. “We have the dunes to the north, and then we have the plains and then we have the wonderful hilly part of the state in the south,” she says.

Another painter and board member of IPAPA, Mary Ann Davis has also headed away from Indiana to paint, opting for locales in New York, Michigan, Idaho, Ohio and Wisconsin, but she appreciates having subjects just a short distance away.

A graphic designer by trade, Davis, who has a studio on the southside, says she’s become more flexible when it comes to choosing a landscape subject. She used to match her painting spots to images she had in her mind.

“Now I will say, I can paint that with the light,” she says. “I have found that I will make a painting instead of drive forever.”
Light is a common thread in plein air painting. Donna Shortt, a southside resident and a board member of IPAPA, says the subject doesn’t matter, as long as the light is good.

“My favorite subject is when the light is really nice, which doesn’t happen all the time,” says Shortt, who had her first experience painting outdoors at Steele’s home in 2006.
Her plein air paintings were included in the 2013 book “Painting Indiana III: Dignity of Place,” and her work can be found in galleries around Indiana.

Outdoors and closer to home
Roy Boswell is a painter who lives in Bargersville. He studied landscape architecture and design at Purdue. In his paintings, he focuses on a specific Indiana subject: family farms. He sometimes paints his father’s farm in southern Indiana. Because he can’t always get away to make the long trip, he has found a few locations that are closer to home.

While not all landowners welcome him onto their property, he has had many positive experiences.

“Family farms are in this weird period where in probably within the next 10 years things will be rapidly [changing into something] different than they are right now,” he says. “I like recording that. I’m trying to bring this new style of painting into these scenes and scenarios that aren’t new. It’s all rusting machinery and buildings in various degrees of decay.”

He adds there have been times where he didn’t have every art supply he thought he needed but being forced to come up with a different solution has also resulted in a better piece.

Innovation and improvising are the fun part for Davis. “Those can be really fun times because you wind up being more creative by improvising,” she says. “So you may have forgotten to bring your white, and now you’re using yellow for white. Well, we’ll move the value scale down a little bit and see what happens.”

Join up, head out
Boswell, who credits Shortt as his first painting teacher, says that community is important to any artist. “Get ahold of someone who paints outside, ask for a material list, then just go outside and enjoy the struggle,” he says. “With a little more time, you’ll get good at it. Like anything else, it’s the action of it. You can theorize all you want, but you [need to get] the paint time in.” While YouTube, he says, can be helpful for tutorials, there is no substitute for going outside and doing it.

Luckily for aspiring plein air artists around the state, IPAPA welcomes new artists to join and is encouraging in its advice. Unlike many similar organizations, artists don’t need to be invited to join; they simply need to send the organization a $35 fee and come paint.

“The thing we all did was join IPAPA; it’s a very welcoming group,” says Shortt. “You don’t have to be a good painter at first. You can go to all these events and just absorb what your body is doing. Some people might give a mini lesson or let you stand behind and watch while they work. You can look at all of the different setups and tripods and palettes, and people will tell you where they got them and what works for them and what didn’t work.”

Many of Indiana’s current plein air painters continue to find inspiration at the Friends of T.C. Steele State Historic Site, also known as House of the Singing Winds.
IPAPA’s annual T.C. Steele Great Outdoor Art Contest takes place in September. Shortt had her first experience painting outdoors at Steele’s home in 2006; she now judges the competition. And Davis attends the event almost every year.

Other IPAPA-hosted competitions and paint-outs take place around the state on a regular basis. More than 100 painters were expected to attend this year’s kickoff event in late April, an annual competition in New Harmony called “First Brush of Spring.” The group also has at least one event almost every month year-round, including events in Indianapolis, Richmond, Zionsville and Brookville.

As far as what the artists enjoy painting whether at an IPAPA event or out on their own, they agree that the key is to find a place with good light, not to overpack, to be prepared for the weather, and ultimately to be flexible and creative.

Shortt has no plans to stop braving the elements for her art. “Listening to nature and just being outside. I never thought I’d become a person like that, but I’m happiest when I’m outside instead of inside a box,” she says. “Even though the box is comfortable with air conditioning and heat, [I’d rather be outside] in all kinds of weather. Even in the wintertime. My best experiences have been standing outside in the snow and painting. You just have to put enough layers on.”

To learn more about Indiana Plein Air Painters and get the organizations’ event schedules, visit inpainters.org.