In plein sight
Painters past and present have captured the beauty of Southern Indiana on canvas
Tricia Wente dips her brush into her palette, lightly tapping it to remove excess paint. She stares into the deep forest behind her home in Bloomington, exhaling calmly and moving her hand across the canvas. She marvels at the scene before her, as she breathes in the fresh Indiana air. An art teacher, Tricia is plein air painting, an artistic process practiced by amateurs and masters alike since its origins in the 1800s.
Directly translated from French, plein air means "in the open air." For centuries, artists ventured into nature and used light and perspective to guide their work. Picture Claude Monet's Rouen Cathedral series, a nearly identical scene painted in different weather conditions and at different times of day. Artists loved plein air painting for its artistic inspiration, but also for its cathartic nature. "Plein Air painters work outside and work very quickly," says Lyn Letsinger-Miller, author of "The Artists of Brown County." "They were breaking away from the studios, [the restrictive space that their teachers put them in] to go out and paint a scene as the light hit it because it changed."
Letsinger-Miller's book, published in 1994, reawakened interest in the plein air painters who formed a thriving art colony in the then-rustic town of Nashville in the 1880s. Today, contemporary artists carry on that artistic tradition throughout the region.
Through the publication of the 2013 book, "Painting Indiana III: Heritage of Place" by Rachel Berenson Perry, it is clear that this art form is still popular today. The book includes 15 never-before published works by the Hoosier Group indicating the interest that remains today. Still wondering what plein air painting is all about? Let us paint a picture for you.
The beginning of plein air
An Owen County native, T.C. Steele studied art for five years Munich's Royal Academy in Germany then returned to the United States and opened a studio in Indianapolis. Looking for a new direction, he discovered Brown County. Born and raised in Indiana, the soon-to-be wed Steele was well aware of the simple life that awaited him and his future bride, Selma. "One has to be very careful in Brown County not to put on style," he wrote. "I think we will get along with the our new neighbors, though it must be admitted they are a curious people."
In the 1880s, Steele was joined by a notable clan of painters who gathered in Southern Indiana to form what became known as the Hoosier Group. Hoosier native John Ottis Adams had joined Steele at the Royal Academy, where he met William Forsyth of Ohio. Richard Gruelle was born in Kentucky and moved to Illinois to paint before joining the others in Nashville.
Once the group settled in Brown County, their paintings took on a distinctive impressionist style. The artists painted the natural beauty of the hills and valleys, including the people who lived there.
The Steeles settled in their home between Nashville and Bloomington became known as the Housing of Singing Winds. Selma was initially skeptical of life in Brown County, but she grew to love and appreciate the landscape where "you could see the complete horizon in an atmosphere of fantastic blue with pulsing clouds."
Still, she was horrified by the living conditions and lifestyles of local residents. She couldn't comprehend why they chose to remain isolated, poor and illiterate when they were close to Bloomington, a college town. The neighbors, in turn, were curious about the Steeles and visited their home on Sundays. They complimented Steele's pictures, though they couldn't understand why he spent so much time on them. But they returned every week for what came to be known as Sunday at the Steeles'.
In 1900, Brown County closely resembled what the rest of Indiana was like in 1840. Many people still lived in log cabins. "It was like the artists got stuck back in time," Letsinger-Miller says. "They could turn right around and get on a train and be in Indianapolis, Chicago or Cincinnati, the major art markets. So that's why this particular area caught on."
Letsinger-Miller's admiration for the Hoosier Group is clear. "This is a great story about these people who moved to this dirty county with people who thought that what they were doing was pure nonsense," she said. "They made something that ended up being internationally known."
Steele's home, now known as the T.C. Steele State Historic Site, houses over 50 of his paintings. His studio, once his sanctuary, is preserved so visitors can see where Steele worked. Located on 211 acres, the site includes guided tours, events and workshops that help keep the legacy of Steele and his fellow painters alive in Southern Indiana.
Up close and personal with plein air professionals
We asked an author, a teacher and an artist about what makes plein air painting so special for them.
Lyn Letsinger-Miller is a 64-year-old author who currently resides in Nashville and is a member of the Brown County Art Gallery Foundation's board of directors. In 1994 when she wrote "The Artists of Brown County", a book that chronicles the lives and art of Nashville's famed Hoosier Group.
How would you explain plein air painting?
Plein air is sort of the slam-dunk of art, the fast break of art. It happens really quickly and sometimes you get a slam-dunk and sometimes it bounces off the rim.
Where did you first hear about it and become intrigued?
I was always interested in art and bought it as a very young person. I'd rather have original art as opposed to a print or something you would buy in a furniture store. For about the same amount of money, I could get something original. It's more the subject matter that appeals to me.
Which painters have been inspirations for you?
They all are. I live in Brown County, and they show you a different way of looking at your environment. People drag around day to day; they don't notice how beautiful things are. Everybody is looking for somewhere better to go or some exotic vacation place. But I think these artists, and the living ones that work today, show people to look out their window, take a walk in the woods and notice the sun coming up over the hills as you're driving your kid to school. All of a sudden, you realize here's this moment that is so beautiful.
Why has plein air painting stood the test of time?
Because it's beautiful, you want it in your home. It captures that day you walked in the woods. It's as if you could freeze that moment and see it through the eyes of someone with great skill. It's a one-of-a kind-thing, a moment in time, and it has great beauty.
What did you learn in the process of writing the book?
These were principally plein air painters. The idea that they would go out - and it could be a hit or miss -, and that they work so fast is amazing to me. When you're standing up close to it, you know that there's an image there, and when you step back, it all comes together.
Tricia Wente, a 67-year-old plein air teacher and artist from Hamilton, Ohio, has been passionate about plein air painting since she was a kid. She decided to become a teacher and share this passion with others. A member of the Bloomington Watercolor Society, Wente paints whenever she gets the chance.
Why do you feel connected to plein air painting?
Plein air is something I've done my entire life. I used to paint with my mom. My mom and her girlfriends would meet and paint somewhere. They called themselves the Palette Club, and I used to tag along when I was little.
What would you tell someone who wants to start plein air painting?
Decide where you want to go, and pack as lightly as you can. The T.C. Steele PaintOuts are great, and they happen twice a year. Paint outs give aspiring painters a chance to break out their canvas and paints and work with a group of people with similar artistic passions.
Where is your favorite place to paint?
My husband and I took two long vacations and did the whole Northwest and Southwest, all of Route 66. I'd say, "Oh I kind of like that over there!" He would pull over for 20 minutes, and I would get a little painting going. We had a van at the time so I was able to get in the back seat and mess around with it a little bit.In the evening, I would look at a map to see where I had painted and I would write that on the back of the painting. Then, I'd alter it a bit if it needed it. The beauty of plein air is getting it all finished, if you can, outside.
What made you decide to teach plein air painting classes?
It makes you focus. I had been trained as a docent when we lived in West Virginia. I was standing at the Museum of Art there, talking about all of these other paintings. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that I needed to be painting a lot myself. Then it evolved into teaching.
Charlene Marsh, a plein air painter and Muncie, Indiana native prides herself on the organic approach that she takes to plein air painting. An avid hiker, Marsh connects her surroundings with her art.
Where did you first hear about plein air painting and become intrigued with the process?
I've been interested in art since I was a kid: I grew up with it. My dad went to law school at Indiana University back in the late '40s and early '50s, and he rented a place in Brown County. He would hang out with artists and commute to law school. We would go to art museums, and we had art books and art in our home, so it was just something I grew up with.
What would you tell someone who's interested in doing plein air painting?
First, I would say that you should have some grasp of the medium before you head out into the field. I would recommend some classes like drawing and color theory. Practice with the paint and do some painting in the studio to get some mastery of the medium. When you go out on location, you're not only dealing with the paint medium, you're dealing with hot and cold temperatures, rain, wind, bugs, freezing temperature, sun and changing light. Things change very quickly.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I specialize in painting the deep forest. I don't just drive around and park my car in the middle of the woods and paint. I get my inspiration from just being out in nature. Even if I'm not painting outside, I hike my trail every day - rain or shine, snow or sun or whatever. I'm always studying the colors, the shadows and the lights, thinking about what would make a good painting.
What do you love most about being a plein air painter?
It's a very pristine environment with no chemicals and toxins. I always think of the paintings as little holographs of the forest. I bring that energy into my living space. Trees resonate at the same vibrational frequency as the natural human body, so by being out in the forest and bringing that into our home, it connects our physical body to that natural vibrational frequency. Painting plugs one into that higher source. I'll go out painting in 20-degree weather, and I'm freezing. But if I'm into the painting, I don't care. I get into a trance where I just want to see the painting through.
What is your favorite place to paint other than Yellowwood State Forest?
There's a creek nearby that I love. In the summer, the water gets really still and can dry up. In the winter and spring, it flows with waterfalls and ripples. The last couple of years, we've had a pretty bad drought and the creek was dry so I started painting the flowers around my property. I'm landscaping the property with the idea of where I'd want to paint and how I'd want to paint it.
Why do you think plein air painting has remained popular for so long?
In the early days, before the camera was invented, painting documented surroundings. So it has a historical significance. It's a sense of place, to see what something was like on a particular day of a particular year. Plein air painting connects the artist with nature on an emotional level, where all senses are activated. It's not as comfortable as when you're sitting in your studio with a canvas and an easel and a cup of coffee. You're going out in the elements and feeling the sun and the breeze, and all of that is going into the painting. I complete a painting on location, and bring it out to the studio, but I don't touch it or pick at it because I don't want to clean it up. I want that raw energy that I felt on location.
Making plein air personal
If you want to venture out for your own plein air experience, here's what you'll need.
Paints (Wente prefers Windsor Newton Watercolors)
Brushes (a starting set will do)
Roll of masking tape
Cup for water
Hat, sunscreen and bug repellant
How to do it:
Wente shares these tips with her students:
Study the area and plan where to set up. Take your time to pick a subject to paint.
Carefully observe shapes, subjects, light and color.
Unpack your materials and get comfortable.
Tape off your paper if you like the look of clean edges.
Sketch the larger shapes lightly with a pencil on your paper.
Squint to view the light and dark shapes and values.
Add color to the large areas you see, leaving paper bare where light is evident.
Build the paint shapes as you continue, and strive to remain spontaneous.
Try not to overwork.
Add details and more paint layers later.
Change your water frequently. Muddy water = muddy painting.
View and observe other artists' work.
Relax and enjoy the process!