Like many artist and painting groups, the Plein Air Painters of Chicago (PAPC) had to pivot in 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One way PAPC kept their community together was through the start of online painting critiques for their members.

A relevant, yet light-hearted message on the back of the PAPC t-shirts

I had the pleasure of speaking with the group’s organizer, Mary Longe, who explained that PAPC members share their landscape studies on Facebook, and then have them critiqued on a video for all members to watch – and learn from.

“The Zoom experience has shown us a better way to do critiques than when a group stands six or ten feet back in the hot sun, after a demo and three hours of painting,” says Longe. “Each Guest Artist decides a focus for their review to make it specific and to more easily handle the volume of paintings submitted. Initially, values, focal point, leading lines and various aspects of composition were critiqued. As the weeks went on, the guest artists went more in-depth and critiqued thumb nail sketches, for example and gave homework. As a participant, with a focus on one aspect of plein air, our members report in our evaluations that they learn as much from seeing other member’s paintings as they do from the comments specific to their own.

“With Illinois clamping down early on the virus, we are able to paint as a group now, with social distancing, of course. Our steering team came up with criteria to revise the locations list. We will be doing more nature-scapes than cityscapes this year to reduce the amount of contact. We’re offering a t-shirt that besides our logo, says ‘My painting is best from 6 feet away’, to cue people to keep a distance. Members are encouraged to place Dollar Store traffic cones or blue tape to mark their space, though one member, we think, facetiously promises a velvet rope. Our Virtual Critiques are moving to Wednesday nights when a Guest Artists is available. Only paid members are allowed to submit paintings for critique. Since establishing the Virtual Paint Outs we’ve gained new members every week including some from States outside the Great Lakes where most of our members reside.”

Sample Painting Critique

In this painting critique session, Steve Puttrich gives pointers on values, depth, temperature, shapes, and more.

“I encourage students to take the extra time to do a simple value study or two, don’t rush to paint so soon,” Puttrich said. “Slow down and make sure your plan is first solid. Think of these three things when scouting out for a scene.”

“Start seeing in shapes. As designed, human beings are made for survival; our eyes and brains are designed to see and recognize detail. Artists that have trained their ability to look beyond the detail, even ignoring it for the moment in this design phase, and see the big shapes within their scenes, are able to make stronger, more captivating art … look past the detail, and in looking at the shapes, recognize the temperature of those shapes, observe the coolness and warmth of those shapes. Unify or connect up similar shapes to make a pleasing composition. It’s not about details at this stage. If your composition is not working or you are not excited about this scene, move on to another scene. Make sure your design works well at this sketch phase.”

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Landscape Paintings by Steve Puttrich

Landscape oil paintings
Steve Puttrich, “Light Along the Journey,” Oil, 11″ x 14″

This painting (above) is very special. It was painted during the West Bend, WI 2019 Plein Air event and won the People’s Choice Award for the main event. But more than that, I feel it captured a moment of truth. When walking a path down to the river, I was looking for those scenes and shapes that make connections. I saw a group of Aspen trees and the sunlight beaming behind them, their quaking leaves doing a good job of reflecting the blue sky above. During the painting process, in the quiet solitude, titles of the painting often comes front of mind. This time, Light meets us along the journey came to mind.

Plein air landscape oil paintings
Steve Puttrich, “The Calm After the Storm,” Oil, 12” x 24”

Chicago Botanic Garden: After a strong summer storm front blasted through Saturday night, early Sunday morning provided much cooler temperatures and lower humidity for me to see and capture these intriguing shapes. Of special interest was the ever so slight light lavender in the sky and in the water’s reflection. Complementing this color was the light reflecting off the dusty green lily pads.

“The Calm After the Storm” (above) was done in Plein Air July 21, 2019 as part of a demo for a painting workshop. Hence all the bags of gear in the photo.

Side note: This painting was seen by a family walking by that Sunday. Learning lessons from Eric Rhoads’ marketing messages, I of course had a set of professional business cards handy to give away. After the family walked away, the husband, John, came back and said to me, “I’m really interested in purchasing this piece for our anniversary.” We made arrangements to talk that evening. That night we settled on a fair price and made framing and delivery arrangements.

His wife Lisa, was beyond thrilled to receive this. Lisa then contacted me in September in an email and wanted to gift John one of my paintings for Christmas. Likewise, without knowing it, John also wanted to gift Lisa another painting for his Christmas present to her. In delivering both paintings to their respective spouses, I had to remain silent about each other’s paintings. It was difficult. Needless to say, on Christmas Morning I received a beautiful email with photos of both paintings now hanging in their home. This also lead to another commissioned painting for their sister in Boston. Yea Marketing!!! Thanks Eric!!!

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Plein air watercolor landscape paintings
Steve Puttrich, “A River Runs Through Cedarburg,” Watercolor, 13″ x 20″
This watercolor (above) won Best in Show at the 2017 Cedarburg, WI Plein Air Event. It was also purchased by the Cedarburg Art Museum and is now part of their permanent collection.
In this scene I was moved be the contrast between the soft, calm waters on top of the painting and the chaotic rushing waters at the bottom.
In my workshops I often state the that human eye is attracted by contrast light and warmth, and the human heart is attracted to story. In art as in life, be mindful of what attracts you. Use both to create and market your art. Life and death, light and dark, good and evil, found and lost…These are all great contrasts to look for in your art.
As artists, we seek, find, and capture shapes that connect us to a story. It’s these relationships, these patterns of light and shadow that are important for us to see, understand and use to tell our stories.
As an artist, I know the life of a painting is in the light. The shade and shadow parts are needed to support and contrast with what’s happening in the light. To let the light be the hero of my story the shadows need to be simplified, diminished even. If there’s too much noise in the shadows, light’s life gets drowned out.
I love the Frederick Buechner quote, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
If there’s truth to be found in art, perhaps in your art, then look for and connect to the light, simplify the shadows, and let light’s story win.
Also, be aware of which side you are on. For me, I’m allowing light’s story to win.

About Plein Air Painters Chicago:

Plein Air Painters Chicago formed in 2003 and the venerable Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts began sponsoring the group in 2015. In November of 2017, Mary Longe led a visioning session of a group of the most active paint out participants, which ultimately created a paid membership to allow the group to function more effectively by creating a 4 part mission: to paint, to improve painting, to bring recognition to artists and sell paintings, and, camaraderie. Every decision about activities is measured against these elements.

In January 2018, PAPC launched a membership campaign with a one-day educational session using local artists as faculty, I Heart Plein Air, immediately sold out the 60 chairs available. The first thing purchased was a cordless microphone that hangs on the back pocket of artists doing demos so everyone can hear, and the artist can keep working and painting the scene without interruption. In 2020, just prior to Chicago’s shelter in place order, PAPC held their third I Heart Plein Air in a much larger location with local and national artists as faculty. The pandemic so far has squashed plans for much of the paint out and exhibits planned for the 2020 season but that hasn’t stopped the PAPC from fulfilling its mission.

“We didn’t miss a brushstroke”, says Mary Longe, Plein Air Painters Chicago (PAPC) group organizer. (They didn’t bother creating an administrative structure with titles,that would take away from the mission, she explained separately.) The Chicago paint out season begins in April and goes through the end of October. The locations were published in March, with eight Guest Artists scheduled to provide demos and critiques in the field. We bought a Zoom subscription and with Steve Puttrich as the first guest artist, they initiated our first Virtual Paint Out and Critique before the season was scheduled to open, and have held them every Saturday since. Longe commented, “We surpassed the planned number of Guest Artists weeks ago.”

At the beginning, the Guests Artists were local stars like Nancie King Mertz and Brian Sindler, but Zoom allowed the group to reach out beyond to include Scott Tallman Powers from Kalispell MT, who started the group in 2003, DK Palecek in WI and Joe Gyurcsak in NJ. An Australian painter has agreed to act as a guest artist this summer too. The PAPC continues to look for others who meet their criteria of being a professional, primarily plein air artist, who teaches, and has work in galleries or museums.


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