Creating fresh art in plein air

At the Bel Air Paint Out, about 20 artists will head outdoors to practice a technique that's far from plain


About to embark on a painting project, Barbara Love gathers a bundle of brushes, a French easel, turpentine and an array of brightly colored paints.

But she also grabs sunglasses, bug spray, oversized insulated boots, a jacket and warm gloves.

From the gardens of Monet's home in Giverny, France, to the lawn of the old courthouse in Bel Air, Love has stood at her easel countless times pursuing the art of plein air - or "in the open air" - painting.

"It's when you paint outside and finish the painting all in one day," Love said. "It has to come from the heart."

Next month, about 20 artists will join Love and battle the elements for the inaugural Bel Air Paint Out. On April 8 and 22, the artists will spread out and paint several historical locations. Some of the paintings will be exhibited, while others are earmarked for a juried show in July at Rockfield Manor in Bel Air.

Love is a resident of Annapolis, where a similar event has been held in the fall for four years. But she comes to Bel Air several times a week to care for her ailing mother. Because she has had little time to participate in activities close to home, she decided to join the Harford Artists Association.

"It seemed like the thing to do since I'm here so much and do a lot of my painting here," said Love, 64. "I wanted to do something to help build camaraderie among artists in Harford County as well as getting us out in the community."

After joining the group, she suggested starting a local outdoor painting event in Bel Air. Her fellow artists liked the idea.

"I needed something like this," said Peggy Emmons, a Fallston resident. "It isn't always safe to paint alone outdoors. This gives me a chance to be with other artists and to feel safe."

Love held a workshop to teach the basics of outdoor painting in preparation for the event. She also completed the more mundane task of getting permission to paint on-site at historic properties in Bel Air, including the old courthouse, St. Margaret Church, the Armory and some historic schools. She is experienced in that area - several years ago, she politely badgered the French embassy in Washington for permission to paint at Monet's home in Giverny.

"I was eventually granted permission, but it was quite a process," Love said. "But when you paint outdoors, you want to always be respectful of other people's property and be sure they know what you're doing there."

Love began painting in fourth grade, when she first smelled the oil paints that her mother used to touch up black-and-white photographs. Love tried working on some photographs and liked it. By the mid-1950s, when she was a high school student, Love had taken up painting.

She received formal training at the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore, and has painted outdoors throughout the United States, as well as in several European countries.

Over the years, Love has established a presence in the local and national art community and sells her oil paintings of reproductions of Impressionist paintings, landscapes, animals and portraits for between $2,500 and $12,000.

She is a registered copyist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and at the Louvre in Paris. She creates copies of works as diverse as those of Renaissance masters and Impressionist painters.

But the outdoors always beckon, though Love has found that painters either embrace the technique or have an aversion to it.

"Plein air painting can be difficult," Love said. "The moment that the artist is trying to capture is gone within minutes. So you must paint very quickly. Sometimes a painter is forced to go out a second day, but it's better to finish the paintings in one day because the clouds and weather change. And you can never get what first captured your attention."

Love started the plein air form because it added more to her landscapes than painting from photographs.

"Plein air allows the artist to capture a scene immediately," Love said. "Plein air has more emotion and heart because people and things come to life outdoors."

But she never leaves home without her camera.

"The light effect is fleeting," Love said. "If you can take a picture, you may get something you can't remember later in the photo."

The form is compelling because it engages an artist's interpretive skills, Emmons said.

"It leaves you free to interpret what you see and not what the camera sees," said Emmons, 77. "Some people say the camera doesn't lie, but it does. The camera doesn't compare to the human eye when interpreting colors."

However, painting outdoors presents some obstacles, such as the weather and bugs.

"The weather is the biggest obstacle the painters face," Emmons said. "The last time I painted outdoors, the wind blew my canvas away and kept turning my easel over."

Love said the artists might have to confront the cold.

"The paint gets stiff when it gets cold," Love said. "I have to take my easel to the car and turn on the heat to soften the paint again. And on hot days the paint drips."

She's overcome those problems - it's bugs that she can't get rid of. Although she carries bug spray, the paint attracts insects.

"The bugs fly into the canvas and their bodies slam into the paint," Love said. "You have to slowly pick them off to try not to kill them and to avoid damaging the painting."

The outdoor event will be a first for watercolorist Sandra Norris of Bel Air.

"People tell me plein air is the only way to go as a watercolorist, so I'm going to see what everyone is raving about," Norris said. "Painting outdoors is more immediate, and you have to paint quicker. You have to get the essence down and focus much harder."

Norris, who works as an office manager at Bed, Bath & Beyond, says she takes every opportunity to paint and looks forward to the experience.

"It's a challenge," said Norris. "The more you paint, the better you get."

Love, who paints everyday, concurs.

"I paint until I drop," Love said.

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