By Susan Constanse
The traditions and practices of Plein Air among painters date back to the Impressionists, with their observations of light and its interplay with perception. The practice has resurfaced in recent years, with painters packing their tools into the countryside, and onto the city streets.
Although some painters choose to practice in solitude, some have banded together in small groups, meeting with varying degrees of frequency. One public group of Plein Air painters is loosely organized by Ron Donoughe, who has been painting Pittsburgh landscapes throughout his career.
I caught up with Mr. Donoughe while he was painting Michael Graves’ Crown America building in Johnstown, OH, in preparation for an extensive solo exhibit, A Portrait of Johnstown.
The work is more authentic because it is based on your own experience. If you are interested in light, as I am, then you have to work outside to be in the midst of it. You are influenced directly by the environment and by the changing light patterns. Direct observation of light and shadow is important for mixing accurate color to reflect your observation.
CBSPittsburgh.com: What’s your favorite time of year to paint?
RD: I work all year round, but winter is my favorite time to paint. I love what happens with light on snow.
CBSPittsburgh.com: Why do you think there has been a resurgence of interest in Plein Air practices?
RD: A swing back to realism in painting, especially rediscovering the California and Pennsylvania schools that were active in the first half of the 1900s. More interest and awareness among art historians, curators and collectors in these schools of painting has enhanced its visibility.
I think one of the reasons why artists have taken up Plein Air painting again is that it is a skill that can be acquired, and your results can be measured. It also combines the two favored of activities of painting and being outdoors.
CBSPittsburgh.com: Why did you start the Plein Air Group?
RD: I had been teaching painting for several years and my students knew I went out on painting expeditions. Some asked if they could tag along, and the group just took off from there. Even now, it’s loosely organized.
CBSPittsburgh.com: I was wondering about your scheduling and locations for the sessions.
RD: We try to stay within reason for scheduling these sessions. The winters here can be harsh, so we don’t generally schedule these between November and March. Other than that, they are held every Sunday, no matter what the weather is. We have a definite start time, and people stay as long as they want. Generally, though, three hours is about the limit.
The group meets at different places every week. After so many years of working in Pittsburgh, by myself and with the Plein Air group, we have favorite places that we return to. I am open to suggestion, and try to include public spaces and parks, especially those with public facilities. We don’t repeat locations within the season, but we do year to year. If we do go back to a specific location, we schedule it for a different month than the previous visit.
CBSPittsburgh.com: How many people usually come to the meet ups?
RD: The group varies, because it is drop-in, but we average about ten. I’ll see someone for several sessions, and then they’ll disappear for awhile. Anybody that is interested in working in landscapes is welcome. We have professional artists, but we also have architects and even an orthodontist.
CBSPittsburgh.com: Do you get a lot of attention from passersby?
RD: Oh yes, and I enjoy people who stop and say hello and I’m always happy to stop and chat. Most are curious and supportive about what we are doing. Because they are looking over my shoulder, they generally notice something about the location they hadn’t before because I am drawing attention to it.
It’s almost like performance art when you’re out there. You have to interact with everything: people, bees, snakes. Sometimes you get long stories about someone’s grandmother who is an artist. A lot of people want to know if you sell your work.
CBSPittsburgh.com: What do you have coming up?
RD: I will be opening an exhibit space in Lawrenceville this fall, where I’ll have my work on display. It’s in the same building as my current studio. My work, along with work by Patrick Ruane, is now at the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg
You can keep up with Mr. Donoughe’s efforts on his blog, where he posts new and in-progress images weekly.
208 Main St, 2nd Floor
Pittsburgh PA 15201
(412) 216 1914
Outdoor Painter of Pittsburgh
Sundays, from 2PM
Through Oct 23
Locations vary. Check WestPennArt (www.westpennart.com) for scheduling.
Susan Constanse is a painter, living and working in Pittsburgh. Examples of her work can be viewed on her site, at http://www.susanconstanse.com