JIM LAMB WAS was standing in a Wyoming meadow, immersed in painting the scene before him, when he heard something behind him. “There was a big bull buffalo a few yards away. It was pacing back and forth, and snorting and pawing the dirt,” he recalls. Lamb realized he was in the middle of a buffalo trail, and the bull was politely telling him to step aside. “I just grabbed my stuff in my arms and took off,” Lamb says, and the herd rumbled on.
That kind of encounter is rare, but such are the potential hazards of painting outside — one of many reasons it’s a good idea to do it with a friend. Or a few friends.
I joined Lamb and a few other painters during a “paint-out,” one of many that the Plein Air Washington Artists put on throughout the year. Beyond the paint-outs, the group holds juried art shows and workshops.
Members (an annual membership is $30) sign up for a paint-out in advance and then meet in a given spot; events happen all over the state, mostly in the Puget Sound area. Lamb was the day’s facilitator when we met one recent morning at a riverside park in Snoqualmie, where painters worked under trees to avoid the morning heat.
Roughly translated from French, “plein air” means “in the open air” — in other words, outside. More literally, “plein” means “full,” and I like that thought — being in the outdoors means fully taking in the world around you.
When they arrive, the artists spread out, each looking for an ideal vantage point. They tote easels, canvases and paint boxes, as well as hats, snacks and plenty of water.
Painting this way forces the artist to make quick decisions and swiftly capture light and shadows before the scene changes into a distinctly different time of day.
“You have to capture the moment, and that’s part of the fun of it,” says Janelle Kroner, president of the Plein Air Washington Artists.
It’s not just about capturing the view — we have cameras for that — but about your interpretation of it. Even if they paint side by side, no two painters will portray the same scene in the same way.
“The shadows and light and everything are here,” Lamb told me, putting his hand to his heart, “not out there.”
As they paint, one artist will pause to wander over and chat with another. They talk about techniques and tools — what’s working, what isn’t.
Some of them, like Lamb, are professionals, but many are not. The main qualification you need to join is a desire to be part of a community of folks who want to make art outdoors. (While many are painters, no one will be mad if you bring some other medium — even if it’s an iPad.)
“The community of plein air artists has really grown, especially with lockdown and people finding new hobbies,” Kroner says. “We’ve noticed a huge growth in membership.” Making art with others brings the usual benefits of camaraderie. Being outdoors boosts the mood. Having a planned event is an added incentive to pick up the easel and go. And then there’s the safety aspect. “Our group allows people to feel comfortable because they’re not alone,” Kroner says.