Capturing Summer through Plein Air Painting

Joshua Cunningham
Golden Glare
Oil on linen
16” x 20”

We spend so much of the year dreaming about Minnesota summers. Going to the lake, long evenings spent outside, and finally seeing that glorious sun. But when it gets here, doesn’t it always seem to slip through our fingers? Somehow we blink and all of our lofty goals of spending every second hiking or in a kayak have passed us by and the bittersweet smell of fall hits the air.

What if there were a way to feel totally immersed in a moment in time in a way that feels transportive, that connects you to nature in a way you haven’t felt since childhood? That is the draw of painting en plein air. En plein air, French for “in the open air,” is a style of painting popularized during the impressionist period in the 19th century, where painters create landscape work from start to finish outdoors, rather than sketching a scene and finishing it in the studio as was typically done before. This style of painting is quick and responsive, changing as the light and clouds shift. It requires a fierce concentration and, perhaps above all, simply a love of being outdoors.

I spoke with plein air painter Joshua Cunningham as he was heading out the door to paint. He was gathering paintbrushes and contingency rain gear as we chatted about the very thing he was about to embark on. “The most beautiful part of plein air painting is actually its accessibility for everybody,” Joshua said. “All you need is the willingness to go outside with as little as a piece of paper and a pen, or a paintbrush and a canvas and some paint, and connect through that medium to the world around us.”

I was talking with him to learn more about his thoughts on White Bear Center for the Arts’ Into Nature: Plein Air Competition happening this August. Joshua will be this year’s judge, awarding prizes at the Community Reception and Award Ceremony on August 17th, and selecting work for the Into Nature Plein Air Exhibition. This annual competition is open to people of all skill levels, even those who have never tried plein air painting before. The competition days are August 1 through 10, and during that time participants will be painting outdoors in locations around White Bear Lake. The long tradition of plein air in White Bear Lake makes for a strong showing of artwork in the annual Into Nature Competition, and Joshua will be awarding $4,750 worth of prizes this year. Joshua emphasized that the process isn’t about the prize money at the end, it’s about the process of painting. In the end, “we are there to paint and spend time with something we love,” he said.

The plein air artists who go out and paint during the two weeks in August will be capturing White Bear Lake at a moment in time, through the unique lens of the artist. “As a judge the most exciting part is being the first person who gets to pore over all this artwork that didn’t exist five or six days before,” Joshua said. “Each painting shows the artist at that point, where they are physically in space, where they stood, what they were looking at, what they were interested in. To be invited to be the judge of that is such a privilege.”

Registration is open now through July 14, and all are welcome to register and take part in the plein air experience. All entries will be exhibited in the Ford Family Gallery from August 17-23, and selected pieces will move into the Exhibition Hall for the month of September as part of the official Into Nature Plein Air Exhibition.

Take a risk, soak up these summer days, and enjoy the experience of being in nature. I certainly know I’ll give it a try as a way to be present in these fleeting warm moments. As Joshua said, “The realization that I’m painting something that I had no idea existed ten minutes before I started, or the way the lights unfolds as you stand there and watch it, it kind of seems like it’s nothing, but if you give it a moment or two of vulnerable thinking, or open-heartedness, you kind of realize it’s everything.”

-Ellie Fuelling, WBCA Communications Manager