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A Fine TIme For Plein Air

Story & Photography by Leslie Joy Ickowitz guest blogger this week while Shawn Dell Joyce is moving...

It’s a picture perfect, crisp fall morning at Fred Howard Park and renowned Plein Air painter and instructor Shawn Dell Joyce has an adventure planned. Her students arrive at the northern end of the shore but instead of congregating together, they spread out in search of their own inspiration. Each looking for whatever they deem the subject matter of the day to be.

Painter Rachel Miller setting up

Lisa made her way to the water’s edge only to promptly pivot 180 degrees putting her back to the frothy coastline. The palms and a path between them caught her attention.

One by one artists stake claim to their territory. Later, Shawn tells me, “You’ll have to go find John,” speaking of one of her students. “He’ll be hidden from the sun somewhere.”

Take a look at John, seen here exemplifying the “in the field” aspect of plein air painting.

Painter John Sirois in the field

Do not be intimidated by the language. Plein Air is simply the act of painting outdoors. You’ve seen it at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You’ve seen it on the Italian coast. You’ve seen it in romantic comedies. In this case, the seagulls, sandpipers and terns of Tarpon Springs are twirling in the air while the gentle morning light sparkles like diamonds on the current as it shifts in hues of green and blue.

Finished painting by Sherry Hart

Shawn begins class and everyone gathers round. One of the first topics is equipment. “Don’t get caught up in the glossy magazines,” she warns while we picture painters with the most dreamy set-ups that probably weigh a ton and are cumbersome to carry, set up and break down. She suggests first learning the basics of what you need and starting with that. “My friend” Lisa who I first met at the shoreline rejoices in ridding herself of heavy stuff and replacing it with light weight finds that do the trick.

“These are good for Santa,” Shawn says of supplies. Many artists are using ampersand board as their painting surface. This is an excellent idea because paper flies in the wind.

Shawn Dell Joyce demonstrating

Moving on to today’s demonstration: Color values. Shawn passes around viewfinders with red cellophane to help simplify what the eye sees. Then recommends that artists start with a value sketch, which should take “ten minutes max.” She starts with the darkest dark and recommends getting five colors down for the value sketch. “If you get more than that, Mazel Tov!”

Next, Shawn begins a notan study—a quick black and white sketch to show composition and where the focal point is. Her own painting today will focus on the sea grapes and its branches and the light in between.

“Where they meet is going to be magic,” she says. “That’s the prettiest part.”

“You have about two hours before the light changes dramatically,” Shawn alerts, setting the artists off on their way. “Don’t think you’re married to what nature gives you. You can move a tree,” she adds as everyone scatters.

Shawn is as concerned with environmental challenges as she is with painting and her Plein Air Adventures enable her to exercise both passions while spreading the word about important environmental issues impacting the sites she invites her artists to. She says part of the class is getting people to look at the landscape a different way.

She studied extensively at the Hudson River School and a passion for the land comes with the territory. Surveying the landscape before us she says, “For me this is a cathedral. This is a stained-glass window. You’re seeing the light of God.”

Shawn says Florida demands a level of color that other places in the known world don’t. “All of this beautiful light here and all the wildlife and color—I think it’s crucial to do it justice.”

Birds are her current fascination. We talk about how they are like little fashion models with their prints and colors and shaking those feathers. “The landscape and its denizens are my chosen subjects.”

Class wraps with a group critique. Each artist is asked to highlight two things about their own work that is “working” for them and an area that could use improvement. Other students chime in offering suggestions and positive affirmations. The mood is united and uplifting. It feels holy out here.

Interested in plein air class? More info here:

Leslie is offering a workshop at DFAC in February called “Picture As You Wish—Making Better Reference Photography for Your Art” this class applies to any type of artist that uses reference photography to inform their work. Here’s a link:

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