Susan Lais Hostetler en plein air
Susan Lais Hostetler, painting Cold Springs Cliffs en plein air at sunset

Why one artist paints en plein air, despite the public aspect of it. Can you relate?

My Private Art: Confessions of an Introverted Plein Air Painter

By Susan Lais Hostetler

Most people like plein air painting in order to be with others, to socialize, to paint in a group. It’s what the outdoor painters say with relish and frequency. Not me. I like plein air despite the public aspect of it.

These troubled times have made plein air more doable for me. Before Covid came along, people assumed that you were just asking for attention if you dared set up to paint in a public space, even if in the middle of the woods.

However, now, during pandemic times, people are less likely to come up behind you outdoors to look at your canvas and I like that. I’ve always been a private painter and old habits are hard to break.

Susan Lais Hostetler painting outdoors
Susan Lais Hostetler painting outdoors

Why am I such an introverted painter? I got signals growing up that art was not to be taken seriously and so I kept it private through the years. Thus, I never studied art. I kept busy at college earning a double degree and despite excelling at art class in school as a kid, I avoided altogether the looming fine art building on the south part of college campus (regrets!).

I worked hard at other things – I made a career in medical education programming and helped manage a 40-person fast-paced firm that used up most of my creative energy. During those years any energy I had left was spent making art and was my alone time. I was just wired that way; art was meant to be a lonely endeavor. Art making, pen and inking, drawing, and watercolor painting were private doings between me and a white sheet of paper; a way to escape reality and enter a pure creative zone. In those days, it was squeezed into non-working hours.

I liked being around the graphic designers and freelance creatives in my company but rarely volunteered that I, too, was an artist. Not until after I was gone from the world of corporate life, when my daughter pushed me to submit to a juried exhibit (which turned into half a dozen exhibits), did I ever call myself an artist out loud. And even then I’d kind of murmur it casually, as a kind of suggestion floated out there.

Susan Lais Hostetler, "Summer Light on a Dairy"
Susan Lais Hostetler, “Summer Light on a Dairy Barn”

Ironically, I’m well aware that the plein air gurus on podcasts and Zoom demos all unite in fervently advocating that I embrace the public when painting outdoors, (they say: it’s half the fun!). And they recommend that not only should you invite people who are curious enough to come see what you are doing, but one should have an extra paint brush, paper and water at the ready to offer them and encourage them to join in (!). This is the actual polar opposite of my natural inclination. I lack the knack!

It’s because of a private zone thing I feel during the creating. I once heard that zone described by a writer I admire (Phoebe Waller Bridge), whose process is, “panic panic panic hope panic.” Yes, I thought, that’s what I experience! And make no mistake, it’s a high. It’s addictive. But panic it is, and it takes being in the zone. It takes some focus.

But people coming up to me during that wet paint process? Panic Interruptus. Spotlighting a private act! Uh oh.

So yes, just now, and for a bit longer, I like that I can set up an easel along the Hudson near my home in New York state and be fairly confident that people won’t step into my space during a tricky wet blending progress or politely demand to see something on my paper that I have yet to have confidence in (lots of panic steps first).

So I’m safe with the mask and six feet rule business. But I’m in a race against (great) vaccinations I realize – this window is closing!

I’m perpetually in this act of embracing the space that the pandemic has inadvertently afforded me. Although of course, I acknowledge the horror show that this viral infection has loosed on my extended family, my community, my state, my world—it’s just another reason we all need a little art and to commune with nature in the big outdoors! But communing with nature at a six-foot distance or more? Just fine by me—me, the introverted painter.

By the way, I actually am pretty social normally. Honest. And all those years of managing experience means that I have organizational skills too. I actually organize plein air sessions in my backyard and encourage people to come hiking and painting with me. Really. I WORK at getting better at my introverted art, at chipping away at my private art-making process. I try not to snap at people if they walk up to me WHEN I’m actually painting. I try to compromise by not quite stopping while the paint is wet, while managing to throw a sincere smile their way nonetheless. Progress. Here’s hoping.

Susan Lais Hostetler in a selfie with friends and artists from a Salmagundi Club exhibition
Susan Lais Hostetler in a selfie with friends and artists from a Salmagundi Club exhibition
Susan Lais Hostetler painting en plein air
Susan Lais Hostetler

Meantime, as this pandemic still exists, I enjoy some respite from public scrutiny in my solitary endeavors in the non-private great outdoors.

If you see me in the woods or by the riverside with painting supplies laid out on a rock or on the grass, or maybe even my newish, much-loved plein air easel, just try not to sneak up on me outright. I appreciate it.

Connect with Susan Lais Hostetler:
Website | Instagram

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  1. Oh my gosh- thank you a million times for perfectly explaining …me. I know I am like this but never put it into words.

  2. For the most part I’m a loner. But I love plein air, and I don’t mind people commenting or asking questions. Talking with another artist today, I explained this as being a teacher at heart. I love the spontaneity of responding to nature and am fine with bringing onlookers into the process. Also it’s good promotion for those of us who are generally reserved and lax in that department. The pandemic time kept me home mostly, as onlookers typically want to get closer than 6 ft. Since I don’t paint in very remote places, the pandemic was like starvation for my spirit. It’s fascinating to hear of another approach and realize how much individuality contributes to the style we evolve. Thank you.

  3. I get really anxious before heading out for a plein air session, and sometimes anxiety wins and I end up staying home. I think this is a combination of performance anxiety and my own private nature and introverted personality. I try to set up where I’m not too close to other people or in a high traffic area. I know this limits my options and I hope eventually I’ll feel more comfortable. I think having a painting buddy would help but so far I don’t have one. At least I know after reading this I’m not “alone” even though I’m alone.

    • Ha, yes you are not alone Tonya by any means. I hope you look for and find an outdoor painting body. In meantime keep painting in outdoor more hidden places where you get some inspiration–outdoor painting is the best.


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