I recently took part in the first (hopefully annual) LA Plein Air Festival, in which artists were invited to paint the urban scenes in downtown LA. Being less than confident in my plein air skills in any environment, I knew downtown would be particularly challenging both in terms of subject matter and audience. But I gave it a shot anyway because I love a good challenge, and because the art store that helped organize the festival was giving away awesome goodie bags. Free art supplies? Count me in.
Turns out it was really fun to paint downtown, and I enjoyed putting to use all that stuff I learned about perspective in Drawing I. The people, though, they were crazy. I usually paint in the most remote natural setting I can find, and sometimes I don’t see a single human for my entire painting session. My first day painting in downtown I chose a part of Spring Street that I knew would be relatively secluded. I was pretty much left alone, aside from a dude from the construction site behind me, who would periodically peek out from the doorway to watch me paint, but he was quiet and unobtrusive in the creepiest way possible.
The next day on Main Street and the final day by the public library was a different story. Interruptions every 5 minutes or so. All kinds of people, with all kinds of comments. The homeless and disenfranchised seem to always be the kindest and most respectful, usually approaching me from the front and asking permission to come around to my side and look at my painting. They were often the most encouraging and impressed. But it was hard to work with my concentration being broken so frequently. And some people don’t get it, that it does take concentration and a whole different part of your brain and that you’re not there to chit-chat. One young hipster even got offended when he approached me with his arm oustretched wanting to give me a fist-bump (really dude?) and I had been so deep in concentration that I didn’t hear what he said and then just looked at him trying to figure out why he was all up in my space.
I don’t think there’s any hope of educating the public about how to interact with plein air artists because it’s too rare a sight to keep people from gawking and talking. But if I saw another plein air artist in the field, here’s what I’d do. I would leave him or her alone. If I just HAD to talk to them, I would approach from the front and ask permission to look at their work, then find something complimentary to say, and then leave them alone.
In any case, I really enjoyed painting in an urban environment. And strangely enough, the paintings I did during the festival are the first plein air paintings I’ve done that I actually like. Shown here are two that are relatively complete. Both were done in two hours in the field, and the one with the blue building has about another hour of studio touch-ups. I did another painting that I also like but didn’t complete enough even to show here, and I did a pastel drawing that convinced me to save the pastels for still lifes. I showed the one with the blue building in the final show at the end of the festival and despite marking it not-for-sale, there were apparently a couple of inquiries about purchasing it.
I think I still need those secluded mountaintops or hidden beaches, but there’s definitely more urban plein air in my future.