It’s around 7:45 on a Friday night and a handful of tourists circumambulate Buckingham Fountain, stopping occasionally to snap photos of the sunset-lit Chicago landmark. A small group of locals are here on a similar mission, although their method of documentation is less selfie-stick and more old-world romantic. Artists from Plein Air Painters Chicago are out tonight, armed with canvases and brushes, painting what they see. This evening it’s the famous fountain.
At its simplest, to paint “en plein air” is to paint outdoors. Popularized by the French Impressionists and artists of the Hudson school in the nineteenth century, the technique was developed to break down the rigidity and structure of the classic studio setting. The style has persisted into today’s world, packaged as a learning tool for art students or leisure activity for retirees. For Plein Air Painters Chicago, the practice simply means packing up a canvas and a couple tubes of paint, parking yourself somewhere scenic, and spending a couple hours outside.
The group operates under the umbrella of the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, which provides organizational structure and houses their annual plein air exhibit. A membership includes access to “paint-outs” from April through October, a chance to sell work during the year, critiques and, of course, camaraderie with other painters. Impromptu post-paint lunches and potlucks aim to foster a sense of community among the artists.
Today’s paint-out was scheduled thirty minutes before sunset, one of the group’s occasional nocturne events. It’s cloudy and humid, and the chance of rain has warded off some potential painters. Coordinator Mary Longe notes that spotty weather is a natural deterrent to attendance, but maintains that the group framework provides encouragement to get out there despite the conditions. A determined few have persisted, and they’re rewarded with warm weather and a peaceful setting.
Artist Anne Farley Gaines is set up at one of the wooden benches encircling the fountain. She props her canvas on her knees, securing it with one hand as she wields her brush with the other. “I didn’t bring my easel today,” she says. She usually works in watercolor, but is trying oil today, using the paint-out as a nudge toward experimentation. The nature of painting outdoors, especially at sunset, makes it difficult to see what exact shades you’re putting on the canvas, so there is some gamble inherent in the process. “The fun is getting back to the studio and seeing what you’ve got,” Gaines adds. She notes that plein air technique is especially useful for returning to the basics of painting like interpreting light and shadow. The sky she’s capturing will change within minutes and the challenge lies in deciding which fleeting moments she’ll commit to paper. As she works, an tall spurt of water shoots from the top of the fountain. Gaines quickly mobilizes her phone camera to catch the moment, as she’s sure she’ll want to incorporate it into her final piece.
Painting urban Chicago as opposed to something more classically agrarian is a matter of happenstance for Gaines, whose southwest Michigan roots gave her a taste for nature. Though now a Pilsen resident, a lot of her work from outside the group has more of a flora and fauna focus. She treasures, though, the opportunity to artistically reckon with places she wouldn’t normally consider. The group offers location inspiration ranging from the Baha’i temple in Wilmette to the Quincy Brown Line station.
Another artist, Kuhn Hong, has chosen a seat dead-on with the fountain, facing Columbus drive. Equipped with an easel and oil paints, he’s anticipating darkness. His sky is a deep midnight blue, contrasting Gaines’ lighter hues. Tonight’s sky is particularly unpredictable, but Hong enjoys the task of adapting his art to the changes. He also sees Chicago as distinctly suited for plein air painting, citing its lived-in history, architecture and friendly people.
PAPC is open to painters at all levels of experience, and the community acts as a sounding board for experimentation and artistic growth. (It also provides an immediate network of collaborators and potential clients.) This weekend, a group will head to St. Charles for a wine exchange where members can sell their work.
By the end of the session, around 9pm, tourists have cleared out and daylight has almost dissipated. A soft orange glow emanates from within the fountain, and the mood is decidedly soothing. The brightest lights, though, come from the flashing neon of pedicabs and the ever-present red of the Congress Hotel’s neon sign. The artists have added rough outlines of surrounding buildings and are finishing their base colors. They will work on these pieces for a few more hours offsite before posting pictures of the finished product at their Facebook group.
Chicagoans have a talent for realizing the full potential of good weather, and the summer season allows for the kind of laidback reverie that plein air painting requires. The practice obviously serves a utilitarian purpose for artists, but more broadly offers a special way to interact with the city. The very nature of plein air urges you to sit down for at least a couple hours and really behold something, a habit that most city dwellers rarely indulge in. It’s a way to enjoy the outdoors while forcing yourself to sit with your surroundings instead of rushing from spot to spot. And if you look hard enough, hidden secrets are bound to bubble up.