Although it has been practiced for centuries, plein air painting — that is, painting ‘in the open air’ — has never been more popular. And it is the setting of choice for many artists here in San Antonio. In the past year I’ve gotten to know several local artists who regularly pack up their gear and head outdoors to paint, and my interest in it has been piqued. So I spent a bit of time reading up on it and talking to a few artist friends about their experiences.
Unlike painting in a studio, plein air painting comes with a unique set of challenges. Conditions like weather and lighting are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and subject to change — sometimes in a matter of minutes. It is that unpredictability and fluidity, however, that is the draw for many artists — they enjoy the challenge.
John Constable - an English painter — was a pioneer of plein air painting in the early 1800’s. The practice really picked up steam in the 1860’s with the onset of Impressionism, and the availability of a couple of artist tools that were game changers. For the first time, artists could buy portable easels and oil paint in tubes. These new products made painting outdoors a reasonable approach. And it was an approach that was adopted by many of the greats throughout history, including Claude Monet, Winslow Homer, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keefe.
In recent years, it became even more popular with the onset of the pandemic, especially in big cities. Artists who were accustomed to using public transportation to commute to shared studios were now confined to home, and working without colleagues. Many started venturing out to local parks for inspiration and companionship and many of them discovered the joy of painting outdoors for the first time. And they are not giving it up.
A plein air painting is completed (or just about completed) outdoors, and often in one sitting. Most plein air paintings, therefore, are small — you can fill a small canvas faster than a large one. Typical sizes are between 6” x 8” and 12” by 16”. Media vary and each requires a different set-up and different supplies. Committed plein air artists are continuously trying new products, buying new, lighter easels, and perfecting the means by which they transport their gear and their finished pieces. Go into any art supply store and you’ll find all kinds of products made specifically for plein air artists.
As mentioned above, plein air painting is very popular in San Antonio. I love venturing into local galleries and seeing familiar local sites captured by an artist’s eye and expressed in a way that I had never noticed before. And the artists I spoke with about plein air painting do it for that very reason — they want to show you the world through their eyes.
Let me introduce you to a few of those artists.
Margie Hildreth — Water Color Artist
Both a studio and plein air artist, Margie is a water colorist. After working for many years in law enforcement (first with the FBI and then operating her own private investigation firm), Margie began painting. She loves painting landscapes, and she loves the plein air artist community.
Most of her plein air work is out in the countryside… in the middle of nowhere. Traveling is a passion, and when she combines that with creating art, she’s doing exactly what she wants to be doing. She has painted in Big Bend, in the Grand Canyon, in France, and of course, right here in San Antonio.
Cindy’s plein air set-up looks a bit different than that of many artists because of the media. Unlike oils and acrylics and water color, pastels are not applied with a brush. Pastels come in pencil or stick or block form. A pastel stick looks much like a thin crayon, and according to Cindy “they are hard and let you get the color down fast”.
Not all of Cindy’s work is done plein air. She frequently paints animals, and that’s ‘studio work’. “Animals don’t cooperate and stay still long enough for you to study and capture them. I do those paintings in the studio from photographs I’ve taken.” I asked Cindy if she has a preference for plein air vs. studio painting, and she admitted that while the studio work is easier “the unpredictability of plein air is exciting. Capturing changing light and weather conditions is challenging.”
Cindy’s advice to aspiring artists is to “just be patient. Mastery comes with doing it over and over again. If you go in with unrealistic expectations, you’ll be disappointed.”
Cindy currently has a piece in the GAGA exhibit at the San Antonio Art League and Museum (SAALM). And starting on July 5th, she’ll have several pieces on display in SAALM’s members
gallery. That exhibition will be on display through late September. You can also see her work on her website.
Shea Daniel-Youngblood — Oil Paint Artist
“Shea takes plein air painting to a whole different level."
"Shea is the queen of plein air.”
“Shea has a following — people find out where she’ll be and go to watch her paint”.
These are a few of the accolades I’ve heard from other artists about Shea Daniel-Youngblood. And they are well-deserved. To describe Shea as prolific is an understatement — she is outdoors painting almost every day, and she posts images of new work online several times a week. Her medium of choice is oils.
For in-town work, Margie looks for scenes that shout ‘iconic’ San Antonio. She’s painted ‘Kiddie Park’ on Broadway, La Fonda Restaurant, the converted Texaco station in Alamo Heights, various spots in Brackenridge Park, the Josephine Street Café… Margie tells me “There are so many cool places in San Antonio. Places that people drive by every single day but don’t think twice about. Look at these places! Aren’t they cool? Aren’t they neat? Stop and look at them!” Those are the places that catch Margie’s eye and the places she memorializes in her work.
If you’re an early riser, you may be lucky enough to catch Margie in the act. She likes venturing out early mornings, before the sun comes up. “I want to be set up and ready to paint before the sun comes up… the earlier you go, the more interesting the light. The shadows are longer. The colors in the sky are phenomenal. And you get to capture the light changing. You see where the light is going and where the shadows are going.”
More often than not, Margie does her plein air work together with other artists. Margie tells me “It’s more fun, and the plein air community of artists are the most supportive, the most giving, the nicest people I’ve ever been associated with. Even when you’re in a competition, you don’t feel like you are. You feel like you’re out painting with your buddies and everyone is cheering each other on.”
Margie recently had a piece in the 92nd Annual Juried Exhibition at the San Antonio Art League and Museum (SAALM), for which she won the Donna LeCrone Walston Water Media Award. She is also represented by Art Gallery Prudencia. And you can see her work on her website and on Instagram.
Cindy Morawski — Pastel Artist
Award-winning San Antonio artist Cindy Morawski paints a lot of landscapes. And when she does, she paints plein air. Although she occasionally dabbles in acrylics and water color her medium of choice — by far — is pastels. She tells me “I am passionate about pastels. An advocate. I enjoy talking to people about pastels and educating them about it.” She is a charter member and past President of the Texas Pastel Society, and enjoys painting together with other Society members.
Shea graduated from Texas State University with an art degree, but really jump-started her plein air practice by taking a plein air class taught by San Antonio artist Maren Phillips. Shea tells me “and I got the bug. I feel alive and connected when I’m painting outdoors.”
If you browse through Shea’s work on Instagram or her website, you’ll see many a familiar site… local restaurants and cafés, King William historic homes and buildings, the San Antonio Zoo, Brackenridge Park, the Kiddie Park on Broadway… When I asked Shea how she picks her spots, she told me it varies. She has a list of places she’d like to paint that she occasionally refers to. But more often than not, she’ll ask herself “what part of town am I in the mood for today”. And she’ll drive to it, park the car, and walk around until she sees something that strikes her.
Although much of Shea’s focus is San Antonio, she enjoys traveling to plein air competitions and events. She just recently returned from Marble Falls where she participated in the “Paint the Town Week’ event. Her piece, ’Glamping at Sycamore Creek’, won the Artists’ Choice Award at that event.
As Shea and I were wrapping up our conversation, she asked me to pass a long a message… “Painting is a learnable skill! If it’s something you ‘wish’ you could do, go ahead and do it! Take a class and just do it.”
Jane Gennarelli is co-editor of LNF Weekly. She also edits the Lavaca & Friends weekly arts and entertainment newsletter.
Pastel paintings by San Antonio artist Cindy Morawski. Click on the first image and scroll through to see full-size images.
Watercolor paintings by San Antonio artist Margie Hildreth. Click on the first image and scroll through to see full-size images.
Oil paintings by San Antonio artist Shea Daniel-Youngblood. Click on the first image and scroll through to see full-size images.