Put simply, the French term plein air translates to “outdoors” and that’s exactly where the Derby Recreation Commission has set some of its latest art classes with the Plein Air Paint Out sessions – the first of which was held in late September, with a second coming up Oct. 24.
“It creates a whole new atmosphere, a whole new vista, and you’re painting what you see but you maybe are making some changes to it as well versus working in a studio trying to work from memory,” said DRC Art Director Aimee Geist. “One of our goals with the Plein Air Paint Out was to get out of the studio a little bit and visit some of Derby’s, what I’m learning are, many great parks.”
The first Plein Air Paint Out was held at Warren Riverview Park in Derby, with the location for the second session yet to be determined. Geist is currently seeking feedback from registered participants, allowing them to help pick the second destination.
With plein air painting – made popular in the late 1800s by French painters like Monet and Renoir – Geist noted there is no set medium. Those who participate in the Derby classes, though, will be working in watercolors since that is instructor Mark Ward’s medium of choice.
Additionally, Ward has a lot of experience with plein air painting – something he has been doing for more than 10 years. Geist recruited Ward, a professional watercolorist who lives in Derby, to teach classes at the new Hubbard Arts Center earlier this year. He leads both introductory and intermediate courses at the center, but his experience with plein air opened the door to taking the show on the road, so to speak.
“When I threw it out there, I think everybody looked at me and said, ‘we’re gonna do what?’” Geist said. “I said we’re gonna try it out; I don’t know if anyone will sign up for it, but we’re going to try this.”
Having Ward as instructor was an advantage, but given the pandemic and the early stay-at-home orders Geist thought taking classes outside would also be more attractive to potential participants. Additionally, she noted it is a great way the highlight the community parks – with some in the first session never having been to Warren Riverview.
Six participants signed up for the first Plein Air Paint Out session. Some had previous experience, while a number were part of Ward’s introductory watercolor class – with Ward continuing to teach technique as it pertains to plein air in each session.
“One of the biggest things is sort of teaching them to focus on something that really gets your attention, something that you can apply all your focus and concentration on, not painting the whole landscape/scenery that you see. It could be just a section of the river with a tree hanging over it,” Ward said.
Like anyone who golfs or fishes, Ward noted this is just another opportunity for those with an interest in art to get outdoors, while Geist pointed out it can be a new way to get to know the community.
Both Geist and Ward noted that first session was well received, especially getting to paint right on the water level at Warren Riverview, and they are hopeful the next session on Oct. 24 is equally well received. If so, Geist said she is already workshopping ideas to take plein air painting out to Bartlett Arboretum in the spring.
“A lot of people like to get out and take the challenge of working directly from nature I think’s the biggest thing,” Ward said. “You learn a lot from painting directly from life itself. There’s a lot of things that you see differently. It’s a whole educational experience when you do that.”
“Experiment and try something new,” Geist said. “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Come with an open heart and do something creative; you may be very surprised with the results.”
Those interested in taking part in the Plein Air Paint Out on Oct. 24 can register at derbyrec.com. Cost to participate is $35 and the second session will start at 9 a.m.