A devoted studio painter, Lindsey Kustusch took the leap into plein air and discovered a way to maximize both experiences.
By John A. Parks
Many plein air painters are also studio painters, and while the streams of production may differ, a dialogue exists between the two activities. The speed and decisiveness required to pull off plein air paintings, for instance, can lead to a greater clarity of design and more active brush or palette knife work back in the studio. Tapping into the feelings of being immersed in the landscape can also enable the artist to sustain a sense of excitement when working over a longer period of time indoors. At the same time, knowledge gained in the studio, including experience with layering, manipulating paint, and adding finishing details, can prove invaluable in the field.
So it is for Lindsey Kustusch, a California-based painter who finds that her richly layered studio paintings are enlivened and enriched by her experiences painting out of doors. Initially a studio artist, it took her some time to give plein air painting a try. “I have always loved the idea of painting outdoors, but the reality of it all was extremely intimidating,” she says. “I attempted it several times toward the beginning of my career and would come home at the end of the day with my ego crushed. So I focused on what I could control and worked for years in the studio before giving it another shot. I think it was important for me to have enough paintings under my belt to realize that this is not the first or the last painting I will ever paint, so it’s OK if it’s a total disaster. It doesn’t have to shatter my world.”
Once the artist began to feel more confident working out of doors, things changed dramatically. “I began to enjoy what plein air painting is really all about,” she says, “immersing yourself in the elements and putting your skills to the test all at once when there is very little in your control. It’s exhilarating — the exact opposite of painting in the studio. Plus, you’re actively living the painting as you’re painting it. If your intention is to put the viewer in the scene, there is no better way to boost that illusion than to be physically painting in the scene yourself.”
Kustusch’s studio paintings feature a full range of light and rich color achieved by building up the surface in broken layers over an underpainting. The lively interaction between the layers in terms of both color and texture conveys a sense of depth and fullness. Meanwhile, the paint handling is varied, with the artist using not only brushes and palette knives but also unconventional tools such as rubber blocks, brayers, and spatulas — “more or less anything I can get my hands on,” she says.
Her plein air paintings are necessarily much simpler but draw on her layering and color experience. “There’s a spontaneity in brushwork that can only be achieved by plein air painting,” she says. “Because of the limitation of time and the unpredictability of the elements, what I paint and how I paint outdoors is completely different from what I do in the studio. Intertwining the two approaches has been invaluable when it comes to pushing my technique and overall vision for my art.”
Kustusch’s plein air paintings begin with some basic planning. “Location scouting is crucial,” she says. “Having a plan before I head out helps to save precious decision-making energy. I’ve driven around all day assuming I’d stumble upon a good spot to paint and ended up coming home empty-handed. Now, I’ll typically do some research the night before, including checking the weather and finding a few spots within a short driving distance of one another to explore when I head out. Most of the time, I focus on places I’ve already been, with a few specific spots in mind.”
Kustusch’s planning extends to making washes on painting panels in the studio that she can bring outdoors.
Kustusch’s enjoyment of plein air painting is reinforced by the many life experiences that it inevitably brings, as well as the camaraderie of fellow enthusiasts. In painting “The Cotton Gin,” for instance, she had a much fuller experience than simply sitting in front of an old building. “We met the son of the original owner, who gave us a little of the history of the place and its importance to the local community,” she says. “With plein air painting, you get to meet quite a lot of people and get a sense of the culture no matter where you are.”
The artist says that in this case she feels the painting has more resonance and depth as a result of this conversation. And in the end this is the greatest joy of plein air painting — that it involves a direct engagement with the world, a chance to communicate a sense of time and place, to share the very flavor of an experience.
About the artist: Born just outside Chicago, Lindsey Kustusch now makes her home in Oakland, California, with her husband, painter Nate Ross.
About the author: John A. Parks is a painter, writer, and member of the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.