Recently, someone asked me “What inspires you to paint en plein air?”

She was asking for a quote for some publicity, so of course I responded right away. But it got me thinking: what does inspire me to paint outdoors?

The Sentinel ©2011 Stephanie Benedict
The Sentinel ©2011 Stephanie Benedict. 9 x 12, oil on board. Private Collection.

The short answer is: I like to be outdoors. I’ve been a birdwatcher longer than I’ve been a painter, and part of what I enjoy is bringing my binoculars along, setting my pochade up in a shady spot, and seeing who happens by. Though I admit, you have to be so focused when you paint—all that fleeting light and everything—watching birds can be a distraction. But, on a Saturday in the Sierra foothills, that didn’t stop me from noticing how, around 11:00, all the hawks took to the air.

And then there’s the fact that you really can’t see accurate color detail from photos. Painters know that camera lenses cannot see the range of colors and values the human eye can: cameras get the darks OR the lights, not both. And that pesky white balance! Change the white balance setting, and all the colors change. How in the world can that be accurate? So if you wanna do landscapes, you gotta go outside.

The long answer is that I love being in the moment, in the landscape. All of these are elements inspire my work: the feel of the humidity in the air, the sounds of hawks and swallows, the scent of the pine trees or the dried grasses. So often our days are taken over by our electronic devices and our automobiles, we forget to look around us. I love immersing myself in the day and trying to portray it with paint.

One of my favorite science fiction short stories (this really is related!) is called “The Light of Other Days,” written in 1966 by Bob Shaw. The device in the story was what the author called “slow glass”: a special glass that allowed light to pass through it only very slowly, so that the viewer looking through the glass would see what had happened years before. The story involves a couple shopping for a piece of slow glass to hang in their living room, a kind of moving painting of the mountains through the seasons. (In reality nowadays, I’ve seen HD TVs at hotels do something similar: but they’re displaying videotaped scenes of island paradises or mountain snowfall. Not quite the same.)

Well, I’ve always wanted my paintings to be a kind of slow glass: I want them to portray a morning, or an afternoon, and give the viewer the echo of actually being there. That humidity I spoke of, or the scent of the pines, or the heat, or the sound of the surf. That feel of a place is much harder to capture than even the fleeting colors of the shadows, and I don’t succeed every time. But that’s what inspires me, and that’s what I’m striving for.

What do you look for in a landscape painting? If you’re a painter, what inspires you?