The air is crisp, the October sun is still warm, and the vibrant colors of the trees are breathtaking. For local artists painting outside — or “en plein air” — this is a time to embrace and celebrate the undeniable beauty of nature.
“Fall is the perfect time for plein air painting!” declares Jessica Yurwitz, artist and owner of Slow River Studio in Essex. “The cooler weather is more pleasant, but I love it because the green New England landscape is suddenly full of reds, oranges, and yellows that we don’t see much of the rest of the year.”
This month, Yurwitz’s plein air class has been working outdoors at Cogswell’s Grant, a Historic New England farm along the banks of the Essex River, observing the inspirational beauty of Boston’s North Shore while connecting with nature and with other painters.
But whether they’re painting the wind-tossed ocean or a bustling street, artists around Greater Boston express the same awe at watching the world turn in front of their eyes.
“The earth is always moving. The light is always changing. Watching nature turn in front of you is inspiring,” said Stephen LaPierre, a member of the Rocky Neck Art Colony in Gloucester. “You smell the salty air and feel the breeze.”
“When I paint outdoors all of my senses are working and I am painting to capture that moment and the feeling of the day,” said Katie Cornog of Medford.
“I love to be outside looking at nature,” said Sigmund Roos of Concord, a retired lawyer who appreciates having the time to paint. “For me it is meditative to be outdoors and painting. When I am painting I don’t notice the passage of time.”
Plein air painting developed in France during the 19th century — with the invention of modern manufactured paints, portable canvasses and easels — and has grown popular locally over the last century.
Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, an American Impressionist who lived and painted outdoors in Concord, founded Concord Art in 1922. Today painters of all abilities enjoy the rewards of working in the open air.
“The French term ‘en plein air’ simply means painting in the open air,” explained Kate James, executive director of Concord Art. “The style became popular with Impressionists, especially Monet, whose haystacks illustrated the change of light over the course of a day. They found that the ability to render atmosphere and light was easier to do outside.”
“There is an immediacy to plein air painting,” said Brigitte “Gitty” Schacher, president of the Newton Watercolor Society. “You are feeling the heat of the sun, living the moment, and capturing the whole experience. You cannot do that working from a photograph.”
Nature is the greatest gift for most plein air artists, but it can also be the greatest challenge.
“I am always chasing time, the tides, the light, and the seasons,” said LaPierre, who paints outdoors every day that it isn’t raining. “The days are growing shorter now. When painting on the coast, I always dress warm because when the wind kicks up it can be very cold.”
Copley Society artist Christine Schoettle of Milton, who works with oil paints, admits that plein air painting doesn’t come naturally to her.
“It’s a struggle. I love to be outdoors, but with four kids and two dogs, finding the time to paint outdoors for hours is a real challenge,” she said. “There are more challenges than the actual painting — there is travel time, set up time, bugs, and transporting a wet canvas. I probably only manage to paint about 25 percent of the time outdoors.”
But the hassles are worth it. “Fall is an incredible season for painting,” said Schoettle, who appreciates “the fireworks of fall colors” at the expansive Blue Hills Reservation in Milton near her home.
For those with limited time, Schacher suggests trying watercolors. “They dry quickly,” she said. “With watercolors it is all about timing — you need to catch them when they are not too wet and not yet dry. Learning to work outdoors takes practice.”
Cornog, a retired computer engineer who has been painting for 10 years, agrees that watercolors are less messy, more portable, and “have a beautiful transparent effect.”
Being able to go outside and paint during the worst days of the pandemic helped Cornog get through the difficult time.
“I belong to the Boston North Artists group and even before people were vaccinated, we would meet up outdoors to paint. We wore masks and socially distanced,” she recalled. “We did do some Zoom meetups in the winter, but this year we have been able to meet outdoors weekly.”
Concord Art also brought people together during the pandemic, first remotely, and later in person.
“Pre-pandemic, making art was recognized as a creative and therapeutic process,” said Yurwitz. “When quarantine began, art became a popular antidote to the anxiety and loneliness. Our business flourished as we brought people together for online classes over the winter and then grew again as we offered a variety of outdoor sketching and plein air painting classes in spring.”
The varied vistas of New England, from the rocky coast and serene woodlands to the bold geometrics of the cities, provide unlimited landscapes for plein air painters. The Trustees of Reservations, North Shore Arts of Gloucester, and Cohasset’s South Shore Art Center are just a few of the many organizations across the region offering plein air classes online and in person. For artists looking to share the experience, the Massachusetts Plein Air Artists Group has weekly meetups all across the state.
“Fall is a beautiful time to paint in Massachusetts — and fun especially with a group,” Schacher said. “Being with a group of painters provides positive reinforcement. It is also wonderful because everyone has a different style and view.”
Boston North Artists group paints outside weekly from May through October. “We mix it up with landscapes and cityscapes,” Schacher said. “Plein air painting gives us a reason to be outdoors to see and appreciate the world around us.”
Linda Greenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.