On Location | Claudia Hartley

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

What do you like about plein-air painting over creating landscape works in the studio? I like both. When painting from life you are painting from three-dimensional views. When you are in the studio, you are working from a photo or in two dimensions. In painting from life you can leave off what you don’t like. When you take a tiny photograph and blow it up, you don’t have the details. When painting from life you have more options because you get more details.

What role does discomfort play in plein-air painting? When you are painting outside you are uncomfortable—the wind blows, a bug gets in your face. Things like that keep you from getting too set in your ways. It forces you into a different mode. I think the brain works differently when you are outside. I believe the more uncomfortable you are, the fresher your painting will be. If you are too comfortable, the painting gets stiff.
What appeals to you about painting in the desert? The vastness of the desert scenery as well as the striking light and shadows. I came here from Atlanta, and this is an entirely unique place in the country. No place else has saguaro cactus. And I love the rocks here. They are exposed in the desert; in the East they are covered up with greenery.
What misconceptions does the average person have about plein-air painting? I would say the main misconception is that plein-air paintings should be cheap because the artist does them relatively fast. But the reason you are able to create them so quickly is because you are highly skilled. You’ve spent a lifetime learning how to paint. And only the best plein-air painters can do it fast. I have never seen an amateur painter paint quickly, and I’ve been teaching for 30 or 40 years.
What’s the best advice you can give to a beginning plein-air painter? Paint often from life, even if you want to paint indoors. Students make the mistake of working from photographs all the time. It only works if you have painted from life a million times. Real life has emotion in it. A photo doesn’t.
Bonner David Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ; Foxhall Gallery, Washington, DC; Little Art Gallery, Raleigh, NC; www.hartleyart.com.
Featured in June 2008