Plein air painting in Paris
“Le Soleil d'Or,” oil on linen-lined panel, 16 x 20 in. Setting the easel up from the side and behind the café-goers lets us know why they are all facing “out.”

By Jill Banks

Where to Go?
Each year I take one major personal painting trip overseas. Because every place deserves repeat visits, it becomes a big deal deciding which destination is next. Paris won out for 2018 because: 1) hey, it’s PARIS; 2) it didn’t require a second mortgage to fly there direct from DC; 3) the city offers plenty of my favorite subjects; and 4) its temperature/cloud cover/average rainfall in August beat out its “competitors.” Plus, there was a good chance that art inspired or created there would be well-loved and happily collected. (That’s how these trips pay for themselves.)

Capturing Life in Oils
All my work reflects a warm, close-up, and personal view of the world — and an invitation for you to be by my side, watching the scene unfold together. I simply need to connect at the soul level with people and places — no matter who, no matter where. It’s that deep-down connection (and the reflection of it on canvas) that I was seeking when stepping foot in Paris. Fifteen canvases (some complete, others not) returned home with me. So many more are still dancing around in my head waiting to spring to life. (Subscribing to JillBanks.com grants you the ticket to see those.)

Plein air painting in Paris
“Notre Dame,” oil on linen-lined panel, 24 x 12 in. The view from the park behind Notre Dame, this painting was the first of fifteen to have been started en plein air in Paris.

Living Like a Local
With sixteen days to turn Paris from foreign city to a familiar spot filled with favorite nooks and crannies, it was time for total immersion. So, from the first day to the last, husband Randy and I would stay in an apartment vs. hotel, go where Parisians go, and eat where they eat, and I’d paint whatever those everyday adventures brought.

Our Airbnb apartment let us cook some meals, shop daily at the market, relax on the couch, and get accustomed to the view out the window and on the street where we lived. Day after day, I’d watch the light shift morning into night, hear the sounds out the window, witness the ebb and flow of the crowds five stories below.

Serendipity also helped me see the city through the eyes of those who called it home. While waiting in line to board our flight to Paris, I happened to ask the man next to me what was taking him to France. His unexpected reply was that he was moving there — where his wife already lived. Wow. Before landing in Paris, Amgad had told us about the Sunday market at Rue Mouffetard, in his neighborhood. When Sunday arrived, that’s where I headed and then met Amgad and his wife at the market. This wonderful pair told us more to see in the 5th arrondissement and all around Paris. They steered my path that day and for much of the week ahead.

Plein air painting in Paris
“Fifth Floor View,” oil on linen-lined panel, 24 x 12 in. This probably should have been named sixth floor view since the Paris apartment ground floor was level 0. But who’s counting? I set my easel up on our tiny slanted balcony to catch the comings and goings down Rue de Rivoli. Pretty spectacular.

The Perfect Painting Spot?
Rue Mouffetard is old authentic Paris, with its market streets left untouched by the reconstruction program—the wide boulevards and architectural harmony of Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III. It delivers just what I like best: vibrant color, liveliness, and a little messiness. With its wonderful imperfections, Rue Mouffetard was my “almost” ideal painting location.

That “almost” caveat is due to getting too much advice (in French and hand gestures) plus more from a frequent easel visitor who had sipped a bit too much.

I’d set up two paintings to work on in the market — essentially bookends for a then-imaginary triptych whose middle piece would either be painted once back in the States or on the next Sunday of my trip. (The middle piece was “imaginary” because I’d only brought two 12 x 16-inch panels to the market. It’s hard to make a triptych with two.) The left-hand piece was of a produce market. The right-hand piece showed the seafood seller with a view up the steep street. My visitor apparently didn’t like the produce painting that was on my easel and kept pointing up the street and up the buildings and up to the sky. Troubles eased when I pointed to my seafood seller painting in progress resting off the easel. Yes, that was the ticket … a farther out view that gave more of a sense of place.

But whatever trouble was eased, only lasted briefly. Another visit to my easel brought more hand gestures and advice in French (I don’t speak it), inquiries into how much for the painting he did like, and an offer of a beer (for Randy) in exchange. His last appearance was the worst. He inched his way more into my space and dipped one finger into a large pile of French ultramarine blue. To my “no, no, no” and offer of a paper towel, his pinky went into an equally hefty mound of Cobalt blue. I figured that blue edits were coming to my canvas although it was spared and off he went with two huge globs of blue paint on his right hand. Who knows what in Paris turned blue that day? Time to pack up. I know how to take a hint.

Plein air painting in Paris
Good thing we had a living room. Here it is toward the end of the trip, lined with plenty of fresh paintings.

Framing the View
It was while wandering around, testing every nook and cranny, that I found the view that answered the question of why all the café-goers face out. No wonder they sit that way! Nestling myself in a cubby area to the side and behind those seated at the café (vs. setting my easel up in front focusing on the café-goers), automatically places us there . . . watching the sunset together on that corner by the Seine. That’s it! We (you, our fellow gazers, and I) are exactly where we so want to be. Side by side. Feeling this. Picking this cubby and painting “Le Soleil d’Or” was both an “aha” and “duh” moment. My find-the-right spot motto should always be: “Don’t look at, look with.” With you.

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Plein air painting in Paris
“The Regatta,” oil on linen-lined panel, 12 x 24 in. I sacrificed shade and a more out-of-the-way spot to capture boats in the basin at Luxembourg Gardens.

“How did you find out about this place?”
On Day 1 in Paris, I was way too beat to paint, but the afternoon could still be spent exploring. That first eight-mile trek took us to many of those places that were already calling out — from research, hunches, or recommendations — as prime potential painting spots. From that initial foray, I’d answer the question of where we were going for the next few days. It was so helpful to figure some of this out free from my painting gear. Following those days, I’d head to whatever places were discovered en route to the first destinations.

The question, “How did you find out about this place?” was asked by our café neighbor (a Parisian) in a non-touristy spot where we were enjoying ridiculously delicious au gratin. The same question could have been asked wherever I painted and almost anywhere we dined or hung out. My advice: walk around, wander all enticing paths, use Airbnb/Yelp/TripAdvisor, ask those you meet about their favorite spots, and follow your heart.

Plein air painting in Paris
“Park Place,” oil on linen-lined panel, 18 x 24 in. This one was toted home to the apartment, wet and exposed, through the Paris crowds since my panel carriers only go up to 16 x 20. Anyone have any suggestions for transporting that size?

Getting Over the Jitters
Plein air painting in any public place is daunting. It takes guts to set up your easel, knowing that anyone passing by is going to expect greatness (why else would you be there?) while you start out with chicken scratches. I’ve taken to always having business cards or brochures handy with images of my successful, completed works. Suddenly, my chicken scratches hold promise of something better to come, seducing visitors to check back later to see what happens. I used those business cards a LOT in Paris.

Plein air painting in Paris
Painting “Park Place,” in a nifty new smock from Charvin, sitting on a shaded, quiet bench. Ahhhh.

Living a Dream
When I was first starting out on this painting journey, one of my top goals was to travel and to support that dream through income from my art. That initial vision didn’t include setting up my easel in all of these places but rather to bring that inspiration back home to my studio.

As great as that first dream was, reality has surpassed it. Yes, my art career supports going where my heart leads me. Following my heart has improved my art and led to more success.

Painting plein air wherever I roam has opened up a whole new and improved world. Spending all those hours experiencing life as it unfolds in front of my easel (instead of tucked away in the studio) is rewarded by wonderful connections with strangers I might never have met. Seeking “my view” keeps me discovering what’s around the bend. I’m filled up with endless inspiration. And, boy, is this fun.

Now the big question is: Where to next?

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I painted all the sizes that didn’t fit in my wet panel carriers (from Raymar – 8×10, 12×16 and 16×20) during the first 9 days so they’d be dry for the travel back home. They were stacked separated by wax paper or other unused panels and packed in my suitcase. All wet paintings were put into those wet panel carriers and brought back in suitcases as well. We don’t travel light — I want to make sure all the panels I might need are with me.

    I do wish that it would be possible to paint larger on occasion and throughout the trip. There are a couple of limiting factors at this moment … but maybe that’s a good thing. Makes me store a lot of the inspiration for when I return to the studio.

  2. I’m planning a 2 week trip to Italy, 5 of those days in Tuscany and I would like to paint. What would you suggest as a travel pack list that would not take too much space?

  3. For carrying my wet canvases back from France (I find that they don’t dry even in 2 weeks in the more humid weather) I made my own carrier – grooves in the solid piece of wood on the sides, solid wood top and bottoms, and heavy cardboard or thinnest plywood on the sides. It can carry 5 paintings at one time. I could send a picture but I haven’t figured out how to add one here 🙂

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