An Essay by Mary About Plein Air Painting

Contemplating Our Aims

By Mary Pettis

I once considered my daydreaming a great character flaw. As a child growing up on a farm, I could easily turn gathering of a basket of eggs into an hour-long odyssey. I was noticing abstract patterns and shapes, making connections among dissimilar things, and puzzling over how dust in the coop turned into a golden path when the sun hit the east window. What I didn't realize at the time was that my musings were perfectly suited to my future life as an artist. I still daydream, but I have made peace with that part of my nature. I now call it a much kinder word,"contemplation."

We are shaped by our experiences… by our rich tapestry of roles, successes and failures. As artists, we bring it all to the easel. In 30 years of painting I have traveled many paths, and my artistic aims and ideas have varied greatly. At first I was content to simply paint whatever caught my fancy without another thought. As time went on, I began a search to better understand the underlying nature of the creative process and to comprehend the qualities that make art great. In my study, I have found writings by John Ruskin, the English critic and author, especially useful and intriguing. Reading his work has prompted me to think about my life as an artist in relation to my artistic aims, how they have changed, and where they are headed. I believe that this introspection has made me a better painter.


Most artists know that greatness in art requires tremendous technical knowledge and a clear aim. I spent many years painting before I came to understand that technical skill is indispensable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself, it lacks the content needed for a masterful painting. Ruskin uses the analogy of a preacher who might have the skills of a tremendous orator, but has nothing important to say. Reflection leads us to our innermost message. If we hope to create an art of fuller expression and meaning, we need to reflect upon our artistic aims. [Ruskin's Five Aims: click here]


When I embarked upon my painting journey, I realized my destination was a fuzzy mix of wanting to show my power as an artist (look what I can do!) and simply imitating the facts and details of nature as best as I could. For more years than I'd like to admit, I thought that in order to make my work look more "real" I just had to add more details – a common experience among artists. With time, I began to understand that beginning students paint "things" and mature artists paint "ideas" of things (do not paint the material of the drapery, paint the "flow" of the drapery). I did not yet know how to do that, so I just kept trying to paint better pictures.


Eventually, I was led into a deeper philosophical study of the nature of Truth and its inevitable companion, Beauty. Not surprisingly, the level of content in my work improved. I began to understand how one technically moves from painting truth of material things to painting thoughts, impression and sentiment. I realized that great painters like Sargent often used symbols instead of spelling everything out. Done well, these symbols (two strokes for a person, three strokes symbolizing the planes of a building or a mass of trees) are all that is required to have significance in the mind of the viewer. They bear their message simply and without pretense. Much of the pleasure from viewing this kind of painting comes from contemplation of and participation in the artist’s idea, from seeing reality where an artist’s brush merely hints. Many authors have attempted definitions of Beauty, and that is a book unto itself. Most agree that beauty gratifies, fills, and lifts the mind and heart. Today, I must admit that I see beauty nearly everywhere. It makes it hard to breathe. It is our challenge as artists to determine for ourselves what we believe is beautiful, and to find ways, if we choose, to incorporate it into our work. This is the cornerstone of authenticity.


I aspire to this category where aspects of Imitation, Truth and Beauty remain, yet they are masterfully elevated to move the viewer towards contemplation of more abstract ideas, such as love, humility, infinity or praise. This is the art that motivates me. Here we are transported beyond the painting deeply into the artist'ssoul. Line, tone, colors, shapes, edges and textures weave sympathetically together with his emotions, impressions, and thoughts, to create a rhythmic and harmonic whole. The message might be about the relationship of the artist to others, to the greatest Creator, or to this exceedingly beautiful world. This is an Aim that engages the mind of the artist as well as the viewer in a higher sense. It is about metaphors and making connections. I personally believe that the true masters are working, whether consciously or not, at this last level.


I began my career as a student of Classical Realism. Although I still do studio work, the most fulfilling experience for me is painting alla prima (wet-in-wet and usually in one sitting) and en plein air. Plein air painting is such a wonderful vehicle for representation of emotion, impression, and thought. Time constraints and physical conditions demand the artist be deep in his or her knowledge and execution of the tools and be certain of the goal. I love the process. I love the challenge. Successful outdoor works have the appearance of being done fearlessly and at once, giving the impression that both the idea to be represented and the means to do it are perfectly known. It is a sublime balancing act. Mastery of the medium requires painting with knowledge, simplicity, mystery, decision, and velocity. Mastery of the message requires introspection and contemplation of our aims.What we discover when we go inward is our poetic response to life. Through contemplation, we come back outward with the ideas we will bring into our work. We connect with our viewers, admitting them into our inner life. It is critical to the creation of great art that we understand ourselves and our artistic aims if we want our souls to mix with the paint. I know that my growth travels upward along a spiral, always revisiting old concepts with new understandings. When each new light comes on, a grace beyond measure is felt. This is the nature of the journey, the richness of the experience. It is the reward of contemplation.

Written by Mary Pettis for the June 2005 issue of Plein Air Magazine



Alla Prima

Also called Direct Painting, or "au premiere coup," Alla Prima means at the first or at first strike. It refers to a time-honored method epitomized in the work of John Singer Sargent. Carolus-Duran, Sargent's teacher, encouraged his students to lay on the paint stroke by stroke without re-working, that they might achieve the greatest amount of freshness and accuracy with the minimum means..."the right stroke in the right place." Alla Prima paintings are generally done in one session, and before the paint dries. This style is considered among many to require the greatest amount of technical facility, for the artist's attention must remain focused on the most important aspects of the subject, skillfully subordinating all others.

En Plein Air

Paintings which are done en plein air are alla prima works done "in open air", or on location. While working en plein air, the artist must work surely and quickly to accurately capture the light, structure and mood of his/her subject. This requires a masterful understanding of color, values and edges, and the ability to synthesize a wealth of information while contending with wind, heat, cold, insects, and every weather condition imaginable. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, there is something indescribably alluring about this glorious quest.


Pronounced 'poe-shod' this is the French word for a rough sketch. Outdoor artists since Constable and Turner have painted small studies for the direct stimulous of the scenes. The works are usually done in as few strokes as possible, in order to capture rapidly changing weather or light effects. Often pochades begin as field studies to be later used in the studio. Filled with immediacy and mood, they are in their own right complete works, and a direct and honest expression of an artist's intent.