William Kocher,
William Kocher, "Pastoral," 2017, oil on board, 6 x 12

On painting en plein air > “There is meaningful growth to be had when painting with friends, as well as exploring and experiencing art and life together.”


Getting together and painting out-of-doors with my friends has amplified my painting experience and bolstered my work for the better. There is meaningful growth to be had when painting with friends, as well as exploring and experiencing art and life together.

In a few hours, I’ll meet with my friends and go paint. We’ve been meeting as a group in various forms over about the last twelve years—some joining the group, some moving on—to paint together out-of-doors. As the group has evolved we now meet at some agreed-upon location that is selected because it offers what we need or what we are seeking in the landscape.

William Kocher
William Kocher

Previously we spent many years meeting in the early morning, and lately we’ve been meeting in the late afternoon or evenings, unless we are traveling, and then we paint throughout the day, and at times during the night.

Plein air paintings - William Kocher, "Cold Front," 2018, oil on board, 6 x 12
William Kocher, “Cold Front,” 2018, oil on board, 6 x 12

When closer to home we arrive at approximate times. We nod a hello, and don’t speak. We set up. We walk around and look. These are familiar places. In silence we look, and commit, and make the first mark. It is cold, or it is hot, and the heavy gray rain clouds suggest quitting to the nearest tavern. Every season and every weather condition has been tried.

We stay (and postpone the tavern) because we have not yet reached the desired altitude. We stay and paint. The river flows by, the ocean continues its back and forth, the mountain remains a solid mass. All of these forms are demanding and will need to be taken into account. We are in the field, and the bobwhite calls from the wood. The sun goes west and the moment of gold arrives. We attempt it. Now we are soaring and absorbed. Paul Resika’s trance takes hold: “For five years, I was out there painting every day, but I never got bored because I was in a trance. You have got to be in a trance to make art work.”

It surrounds us and washes over us. We paint freer and faster, fighting the threat to tighten up. And now the gold is too beautiful, too large and too fine. We pause and check to see if the others have paused. They have. A glance over toward the other easels reveals a sort of elation there, and at times a disbelief, that we could be so wealthy. To be here, now, experiencing this magnificent scene and time, together.

I wonder about the schools of painting, the generations. I think about and question what the influence of painting with others had on each individual. The Barbizon school, the Hudson River school, Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Mercedes Matter in New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area figurative painters. Each encounter shaping and impressing on the individual painter’s work and place in the line of art history. I wonder about the Cedar Tavern assembly in Greenwich Village, those conversations and the history made on those evenings.

Landscape plein air oil painting - William Kocher, "Once More," 2013, oil on board, 6 x 12
William Kocher, “Once More,” 2013, oil on board, 6 x 12

We discuss comparisons while at the Frick Museum where Renoir hangs on the wall with Rembrandt. We discuss discoveries made while painting in England where we went seeking Constable and also found Turner’s late works at the Tate. A fireside conversation goes deep into the night hours and begins with Corot, and ends with Emily Nelligan. Afterwards a walk outside, down to the dock to see the Milky Way dividing the sky in two, or to see the fog and hear the buoy’s bell—the reminder that we are far from home now.

Through each personal trial and the unavoidable vacillations of life; the shows, the business of making art, the business of selling art, the doubt, the laughter and the odyssey of it all, we get together and go paint. We visit the museums, the openings, take the bus through the Lincoln tunnel, drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge. We board the plane, bring the passport, pay for the ferry to the island, find the exit, drive on the wrong side of the road (by law), and swim in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

When finished with our attempt for the day or evening, we toast to painting en plein air. The strain in my neck arrives and I am content here at the table together. Here there is more talk about painting, and about the peculiar happenings of the day, and in a spirit of communion and importance we find well-being. We speak as if painting were one of the most important undertakings in all of humankind, like making peace, or making life, or enlisting, or curing a thing, or loving your neighbor.

I would encourage any painter to contact that friend or friends to go out and see together. It is perhaps likely that many readers understand what I am attempting to describe. There is also time for yourself in the studio to experience Joni Mitchell’s beautiful lament of the lonely painter. Even there, however, the collected conversations, the experiences, the recollections and learning join us. Even there, my friends demand that I dig deeper. They won’t settle for mediocre and so neither can I. With friends sharing the pursuit, we’re never on the open plain (or the picture plane) alone.

Oil skyscape painting - William Kocher, "One Tree," 2018, oil on board, 6 x 12
William Kocher, “One Tree,” 2018, oil on board, 6 x 12

Learn more about William at: www.williamkocher.com
This article was originally written and published in 2014, but still offers inspiration today.


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