Charlee Mandy / Sun Contributor

May 10, 2021

Plein Air Painting and Reflecting Constant Change

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I doubt that any of us ever thought that living through dramatic historical events would feel like dissolution in slow motion, but here we are. Futures evaporate and reform by the day. We all have our ways of creating normalcy and, if not embracing constant change, at least looking it in the eyes. All I can do is offer one such way. 

As I’m sure you do as well, about a hundred times a day I notice a moment of time that I would like to keep — damp blossoms on a branch after a brief morning drizzle, golden hour filling with voices and people sunning themselves on the Slope, a tree bending in the wind. Light and color never stay the same for long. Of course, we take pictures, thousands of them, until our phones prompt us to clear out some storage space or else. It’s what we do. We have magpie tendencies. But if you ever have a miraculous hour or so to yourself and even the slightest interest or ability to invest in a few paints and brushes, sit down somewhere, on a step or a bench, or in the wet grass. Spread your materials out around you. Mix your paints until they are reflections of the place and of you in it, and see if you can’t paint a moment as it happens to you. 

Painting en plein air is an old way of breaking out of the so-called predetermined results of painting in a studio, the sort of thing famous old painters did in French gardens while wearing excellent hats. But you can make it whatever you like. Consider it an exercise in presence. The clouds will not wait for you, and neither will the sun. I wouldn’t fight with them or try to fix them into place, because they’ll always win, and the trick is rather to fill paper or canvas with a series of closely related moments. A sky of thirty minutes, if you will. You’ll have to work quickly, far more quickly than if you were painting from a photograph or from still life, but there is something about plein air that will capture not just what you see in that moment of time but also how it felt to experience it. You may see at last that shadows are often blue, and there are so many springtime greens that they elude capture. 

The longer you sit, the more the world will change around you. 

Eventually you will be faced with a second decision perhaps even more important than the choice of time and place, and that is when to stop. You could sit there forever and keep at it until you’ve painted a building or a tree many times over, but forces will seem at work to keep you from sitting too long in one place anyway — the sun will get in your eyes, your fingers will stiffen from the cold or a cloud of gnats will decide to host their family gathering right above your head. Try as you might, you will never truly be able to capture a moment, for it will already have passed by the time you sit down to try. The point is not the capturing, but the following. Follow a strand of light or a leaf for as long as it takes to know it. 

The result might seem less than accurate, but while I am no art student, it seems to me that accuracy is not the purpose of art anyway, nor are the materials, necessarily. If you want, try it with a pencil and paper. Try it enough times and you will see possible paintings or drawings everywhere—the world will not pause long enough for us to preserve them all, but I find the recognition comforting.

Inconstancy is constant. Defy it, give it form and sign your name in the corner.

Charlee Mandy is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at crm299@cornell.edu.