One bright Thursday in October, senior Anna Zemaitaitis exchanged her studio easel and heavy wooden palette for a lightweight easel, cans of mineral spirits, and palette paper and ventured with her classmates to Half Moon Lake Road to capture the canopied dirt roads full of fall color.
“We were like, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this for a class! We’re getting credit for sitting, painting, outside in beautiful weather.’ It made me happy,” Zemaitaitis said. “It makes you more peaceful when you are doing it because you’re using a different part of your brain.”
Zemaitaitis is one of many art students at Hillsdale whose classes have been taking mini-trips all autumn, discovering new challenges in portraying natural landscapes and small-town cityscapes.
For one project in Oils 2, Professor of Art Samuel Knecht’s advanced oil painting class, Zemaitaitis focused on painting a scene near the railroad tracks behind Rough Draft coffee shop, and set up studio in the Slayton Arboretum earlier in the semester to depict the still-fresh green landscape wrapped in warmth.
Knecht explained this technique is called “en plein air,” French for “in the open air.”
“I’m a big advocate of art from life, rather than art just for art’s sake,” Knecht said. “When we can, in the teaching studio, we work with live models, but it’s also great to get people out of the building and on location.”
Knecht said that one of the biggest lessons learned from working outdoors is the ability to “read and record the colors and light of a scene with some degree of faithfulness.” He emphasizes naturalism and simplification to students in his oils classes.
“It’s easy for the novice painter to become overwhelmed with too much information,” he said. “So the learning curve is to look for a way to simplify things into a pattern and to think about eliminating unimportant detail, getting right down to the essentials.”
All of his students made progress during their three outdoor projects, but he said a moment with sophomore Joanna Dell stood out to him.
“She was not quite finding her way for the first two sessions at the arboretum. I gave her coaching points, and suddenly, she got it. She began working very broadly and massing information, consolidating big masses of foliage,” Knecht said.
Then, Dell’s whole painting gelled.
“I found things like the leaves having the same color family — that helped me simplify,” Dell said. “It was able to give me a bit of peace of mind.”
She said at first she found herself caught in the detail of creating an exact copy of what she saw, but then Knecht encouraged her to take a step back from her painting.
“He helped me to look deeper than what I could see at the surface,” Dell said. “‘What were the colors? What’s the feeling?’ He taught me to not get caught in realism.”
Knecht said artists of his sort like working with the beauty of natural forms, which tend to be solid objects. He said light, even though it has a “spiritual quality,” is as much the subject as any physical object.
“It takes time to make a painting… So, we have to go back time and time again. The weather conditions and lighting are going to change. There is another challenge, ‘Can you use memory to make the painting cohesive in its lighting and color effects?’ ” Knecht said. “Inevitably, the painting becomes a visual composite.”
Zemaitaitis said that’s her favorite part.
“Knecht has always said to us, ‘You have an artistic license; I’m giving you an artistic license to change this how you want,’” she said. “I feel like being outside has really forced us to use our artistic license. If you don’t like the sky that day, you can use the sky you saw the other day.”
She also suggested that being outside in a more independent environment makes it easier to focus.
“Everybody is spread out, not everyone is holding conversation…inside, there might be more music or more distraction,” Zemaitaitis said.
Professor of Art Bryan Springer was also a student of Knecht’s when he studied as an undergraduate at Hillsdale. Now Springer has taught graphic design and various art classes at the college for almost 10 years, including Painting with Pastels, a class offered every other year in the fall, where he implements plein-air stylistics.
This year, Springer said, he has a smaller class size so he is able to visit more locations with his students. He said they took a trip to the railroad tracks behind Burger King where the students worked on painting a red building.
Springer said atmospheric perspective is portrayed through value and color. Fall is the perfect time for his students to experience that, he added.
“Natural lighting is wonderful because we perceive more color versus studio lighting. Lighting in the studio is not exactly flat, but it’s not as vibrant,” Springer said. “Being outside with so many different objects reflecting so many different rays is a visual feast of color.”
He said the changing light source makes it necessary to work quickly.
“There might be a freshness to it— a painterly quality —as opposed to being in the studio, where you might labor over contours or small details,” Springer said.
Springer explained that working outdoors allows students to use perspectives made famous by the impressionist artists; he said they saw shadows in terms of color.
“It requires them to think about how they developed a way to see colors, which may or may not be there, in order to create some depth and dimension,” Springer said. His coffee cup sports a quote from Manet: “Black is not a color.”
Like Knecht, Springer capitalizes on giving attention to light and shadows, but working with pastels presents another challenge.
“They learn from the impressionistic, atmospheric perspective, but then also learning from the medium to think about optically blending so that there’s a vibrancy without the dull, muddy quality that pastel has the tendency to do if you don’t know how to use it,” Springer said.
As the weather starts to prevent the students from working plein-air, Zemaitaitis said she is onto the next challenge, this time inside the studio.
“Next thing we have to do is self-portraits in oils,” she said. “Oil painting is a whole different medium.”