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Plein Aire Painting

To gain a better understanding about the similarities between art and gardening, I sat up my easel along side veteran Plein Aire painters Cyndra Bradford and Jeff Smith.

Designing a garden can be a challenging experience to say the least. When you think of everything you have to consider, such as light and soil conditions, as well as where to place walks, paths and terraces, not to mention the plants themselves - the blooms and colors, the possibilities are endless. The whole process is a mind-boggling experience. But I've always found that if you look at a garden in the same way a painter creates a beautiful painting then the process begins to make a whole lot of sense.

Allen: So Jeff, what's the history of Plein Aire painting and how did this get started?

Jeff Smith, Artist, California: Plein Aire painting got started, I believe, with the French Impressionists. The term Plein Aire is actually French, it means the open air, to paint out in the open air. And the French Impressionists, Monet, Renoir, painters of the period, began to go outdoors and paint and so it was a very revolutionary way of working. Before that painters had worked outdoors, but they had primarily done studies - but the Impressionists were really the first to go out and do a complete finished work and these outdoor paintings would be finished pieces in their own right.

Allen: So, Cyndra, do you feel like Plein Aire painting is a more honest way to paint?

Cyndra Bradford, Artist, California: Oh, absolutely. You're painting directly from nature. The camera only sees a certain way, so by using a photograph you don't really capture the atmosphere and the mood that you can painting directly from nature.

Allen: I know that using the blackboard with the cutout roughly the size, or proportionate to the canvas, helps to isolate and go back to the image you've chosen.

Jeff: Right, the viewfinder. It's a very practical tool and helps you to frame your picture and establish your composition right away. It kind of isolates what you are looking at. It almost gives you an instant composition.

Allen: I think if more of us, when looking at our gardens, would take that approach we would get less frustrated.

Jeff: Establishing a structure or framework is most important, if you establish that framework right off the bat you'll find you need very little detail to finish the picture.

Allen: I think everyone wants to jump into the detail first and it really doesn't work well that way. Particularly in designing a garden, you have to work out all of the little large areas first before you get to the flowers and you have to lay out the patios, the terraces, the walks and so fourth before you get to the actual flower planting, which is what everybody wants to do.

Allen: Cyndra, you came to designing gardens through painting, didn't you?

Cyndra: I did. I actually started to do it as a practical way to make a living. I really found that I was able to use my creative ability to not only draw designs, but to put flowers together. I was never any good at remembering the plant names.

Allen: I find it so much easier to limit the pallet I'm working with to just a few colors, whether it's painting or designing a garden. By using just a few flowers in the same color family it really makes more impact.

Cyndra: I have to agree. You know there's something about when you go into a nursery and you're hit by all these rows and rows of colorful plants and you think, "Well, I'd like to have all of that." It works the same way in painting. You go in and find all of these rows and rows of pre-mixed colors and you say, "I'd love to have that!" But what happens when you're painting, you end up having too many things going on in your painting, it's best to start out with one overall color.

Jeff: Yes, what I've done is picked the point in the garden that interests me the most, a simple thing, and I've established my colors for the whole painting - my big areas, my framework. And I'm really interested in that light on that fountain so I've moved into that area to define that a bit more, that's going to be my center of interest. I would imagine that in gardening it works much the same way, establish a center of interest.

Allen: Absolutely. You want a focal point, you want something that the eye immediately goes toward. A path, a bench, an urn, a fountain… a beautiful tree.

Jeff: So a lot of the same principles apply to painting and designing a garden.