Over Fields and Meadows: Plein Air Artists

Four Artspan artists share what they like about working in the great outdoors.

Annette Conniff Field Fenceline
Field Fenceline, Annette Conniff, pastel

Fields and meadows are clearly popular subjects in Plein Air painting. This branch of landscape painting has enjoyed a renewed popularity in the last twenty years, as many artists have devoted themselves to working almost exclusiverly en plein air. Here we look at four talented Artspan artists who work primarily in pastels, and ask them what it is about working en plein air that so inspires them.

Donna Cusano, whose impressionist style is well suited to that of the original Plein Air artists, loves the challenge of racing against the changing light. “The practice of working on location has made me a stronger painter not only in my physical skills (brushwork, color mixing, etc.), but mental skills as well.” she says. “I see the structure of the landscape more quickly, my editing skills are keen, and I now apply these heightened skills to all of my paintings, whether I am working on a portrait, and abstract, still life, or landscape.”

Donna Cusano Under an Irish Sky
Under an Irish Sky, Donna Cusano, pastel

Cusano, who shows widely and has won many awards for her highly-expressive landscape pastel works, chose the medium for ability to keep the painting process immediate and simple. Inspired during a painting trip along the West Coast of Ireland, Under an Irish Sky, was the result of Cusano's fascination with the vast expanse and the rapidly shifting cloud patterns above. When asked what she particularly liked about portraying fields and meadows, the artist explained, “fields represent a space and time to just be quiet, to take a long, slow breath and reconnect with stillness. While some look at a field and see the minutia of individual grasses, flowers, and other growth, I try to see the nothingness of it. I enjoy the process of editing the muchness down to simple shape patters and color relationships.”

Like Cusano, Baltimore-based Plein Air artist Annette Conniff, loves the challenge of working in the open air. “Nature is a task master,” she says, “and the best teacher for me as a landscape artist.” Like many Plein Air artists, Conniff enjoys finding the perfect light. “I like to paint fast and capture the scene in less than two hours before the light changes too much” she explains. As for her use of pastels? “Pastels are the perfect medium for my 'alla prima' style because of their pure color,” Conniff explains, “and the fact that I can apply in all sorts of strokes: wide, thin, heavy and light."

Annette Conniff, Meadow
Meadow, Annette Conniff, Pastel

She enjoys painting fields and meadows for their texture, which she describes as “constantly changing as crops are planted, harvested and rotated during all seasons. It's never the same, yet familiar.” Meadow, was painted on location at a friend's farm, where she still recalls the ambiance. “I painted Meadow on an overcast, humid summer morning. The light was soft and even, keeping the colors muted with a nice pop of white from the Queen Anne's lace among the meadow grasses.”

New Zealand artist Tony Allain finds pastels the perfect medium for his bold landscape works. Allain, a dedicated pastel artist whose work has been featured in Pastel Journal, among other publications, explains: “as an impatient painter I find working with soft pastels a joy. No color mixing. No drying time. No turps or water to worry about, but best of all, no brush cleaning!”

Toward Lihou Island, Guernsey
Towards Lihou Island, Guernsey, Tony Allain, Pastel

In terms of Plein Air practice, Allain, like Cusano and Conniff enjoys the race against the  sun. “To work on location tests the artist on quick decision making and color selection,” he says “but most of all, the freshness and spontaneity of producing work within a limited time frame.” Allain's bold work, Towards Lihou Island, Guernsey was painted on location and shown in an exhibition of Plein Air works in the artist's home town.

Of the four artists, North Carolinian Jim Morgan takes the most minimal approach to painting with pastels. Morgan enjoys working en plein air for its ability to “improve the hand and eye, as well as one's consciousness of 'location, light, color and shape.” The artist, who has given both group and solo shows across the U.S., began working in pastels for their versatility and ease. “Sometimes pastels are the fastestway to get what's in your head onto paper” he expounds.

Line Train Gap, Jim Morgan
Line Trail Gap, Jim Morgan, Pastel

Morgan's piece Line Trail Gap is a perfect example of the artist's fascination with the graphic nature of a horizon. “Where the land meets sky has always held a great interest for me, and I don't seem to tire of it” says the artist. The location, which is part of Davidson College campus, is one of a handful that Morgan returns to frequently. “Once I find a location that interests me,” he explains “it can keep me busy for years.”

Although these four artists have vastly different approaches to landscape painting, they are united in their passion for working en plein air.

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