After French impressionist painters like Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir made the technique famous more than a century and a half ago, plein air painting has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years.
West Michigan provides the perfect backdrop for artists who want to set up outdoors and paint light and landscapes with their fluid, ephemeral qualities.
Plein air groups in Ottawa County and Kalamazoo offer artists the chance to meet up as a group, yet select a spot and work individually, whether it’s to find creative inspiration from nature, hone a new technique or capture the changing scenery as it unfolds before them — common subjects include sand dunes, beach grass, clouds, trees or water scenes.
The Ottawa Shores Plein Air group also has a special exhibit of its work throughout the summer at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.
Now in its fifth year, Ottawa Shores Plein Air meets for morning paint-outs twice a month, on the first and third Sunday, at different locations from Saugatuck to Montague and throughout Ottawa County. They can take place at a park, the beach or even a private garden.
Lynne Boezaart, a landscape painter who lives in Spring Lake, coordinates the group and informs artists of upcoming outings through the Ottawa Shores Plein Air Facebook page and emails. She thought weekend sessions would be more convenient for those still working and said up to a dozen people turn out. The group even paints throughout the winter when the weather is decent.
“There’s just something about painting from life and the experience of being outdoors and having the wind in your face, the sun in your eyes — even the bugs can add to the experience,” she said. “It cannot be replicated when you are huddled in your basement over your easel.”
Another active group in Southwest Michigan, Plein Air Artists of West Michigan, gathers for paint outs year-round on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, visiting scenic locations in Kalamazoo, Barry, Van Buren, Cass, Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
That group, which has nearly 50 participating artists listed on its website, formed in 2008 and partnered with the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy to paint at its sanctuaries, even producing an annual calendar and art shows. It also hosts a weeklong fall retreat at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute that attracts plein air artists from across the state.
Plein air painting poses its share of challenges — from lugging gear to changing light and weather — but there’s also the camaraderie of being out there with other artists, Boezaart said. It’s free to participate in both groups, and both novice and professional painters are welcome, but artists should bring their own supplies.
The whole affair is casual as far as when people show up and when they leave. Some artists create sketches and take photographs, then finish at home, while others try to complete an entire canvas. The Ottawa Shore group usually paints for three to four hours and then the artists gather for a short critique and feedback session.
“It’s very loose and I think that’s the way it should be,” Boezaart said. “We learn from each other. It’s not a class, but we support each other. If someone shows up and they’ve forgotten paper towel or turpentine, someone there is more than happy to lend you something.”
Jim McMillan, a former art teacher and school administrator who returned to painting in retirement, attends Ottawa Shores paint outs as much as he can. He lives north of Holland and tries to paint four or five days a week.
“I had a mission that I wanted to do paintings of the area,” he said. “This area is so wonderful for painters because you have the lakeshore and all different opportunities of landscapes.”
McMillan, who primarily works in watercolor, has two landscapes in the Tri-Cities museum exhibit of Eastman Farm and Hemlock Crossing.
“I usually get started in plein air and come back to my studio and finish,” he said. “We share ideas. I feel very comfortable emailing any of them for advice and I’ve found them (to be) very, very pleasant people.”
This is the third year for the Tri-Cities museum exhibit, featuring about 12 artists and 30 works. The group has exhibited at the Ottawa County Parks Nature Center and Gallery Uptown in Grand Haven.
“The museum has been very supportive,” Boezaart said. “We don’t have an art museum; the historical museum is our museum and they have really embraced the art community.”
Into the Field
Ottawa Shores Plein Air exhibit
Through Sept. 4
Tri-Cities Historical Museum
200 Washington Ave., Grand Haven
tri-citiesmuseum.org, (616) 842-0700