The Plein Air artist is savouring the outdoors like never before as dedicated online communities soar in number

“Outdoors, on location, in real time…,” architect Pratheek Sudhakaran sums up what Plein Air art is all about. Explaining there are no set rules or regulations, Prateek, a member of the global artists’ community Urban Sketchers (USk), says, “The sketches are basically a record of time and place. We are very truthful to the location. During COVID-19, many sat at the windows of their homes and painted the outdoors.”

With their work depending on the outdoors, the pandemic was highly constricting for the Plein Air artists. As soon as lockdown restrictions were relaxed, outdoor locations were once again dotted with men and women celebrating its beauty, primarily in water colours.

In Kochi, the artists founded the Watercolour Plein Air Group of India during the lockdown as they connected over social media. The group convened its first meeting on November 15 in Fort Kochi. “During the pandemic, we realised that thePlein Air artists need more unity and so we founded this group,” says Sathya Shenoy, an electronic engineer and one of the its first members. Pratheek, who had relocated to Kochi from the US just before COVID-19 struck, helped begin an Urban Sketchers group in Kochi. Outdoor water colourists Salish Cherupuzha and Shyju Azhikode from Kannur tied up with the group to found its Kannur branch. Last week, when the Kochi group assembled at Bolgatty Palace Grounds, they had among them a 70-year-old artist and a four-year-old one.

Pratheek, who has been a part of Urban Sketchers in Istanbul and Chicago, says the movement was founded in 2007 by the US-based journalist and illustrator Gabriel Campanario and has branches in several cities in India, with Mumbai celebrating its 980th meet.

Nilanjan Guha, a member of Urban Sketchers, Bengaluru (also begun during the pandemic) beat the COVID-19 blues by roaming around the city in his car and doing “black and white sketches.”

World on a canvas

“Due to the lockdown, everything changed in the city. My works matched the mood and felt like an album from 30 years ago,” he says, adding that watercolour is a “moody medium. When you paint from a reference point, the narration is different. The location gives vibrancy and movement. The Plein Art story is very different from one that a photograph tells.”

Sathya Shenoy, one of the first members of Watercolour Plein Art Group in India, founded during the lockdown in Kochi, concurs. “The outside is a wide world, so one has to select the composition skilfully. It’s putting the big world onto a small canvas.”

Though the Plein Air artists largely use watercolours, they are open to other media too. Pratheek, who uses rotoring pens, has been inspired by the group to move to watercolours. “Watercolour is a challenging medium and people often watch us handle it. It makes them aware of the intricacies required to work with it,” says Salish.

Vidhan Soudha in Bengaluru and Charminar in Hyderabad are popular landmarks often celebrated by Plein Air artists. “It is the play of light that’s important to the outdoor artist,” points out Nilanjan.

The fun in sketching outdoors, says Sathya is the interaction with passers-by. “People come up with questions and suggestions. Many offer us chai,” she says adding that they all set off carrying their light easels that weigh less than two kilograms, handmade paper, paints and the “all-important” bottle of water.

During COVID-19, when the outdoors was not accessible, how did these artists cope? Most of them resorted to virtual means. “They travelled through the streets of Barcelona, Rome…and painted them,” says Pratheek.

Embracing the digital way, Salish and Shyju Azhikode from Kannur, who have been doing outdoor art for the past couple of years, painted the Pazhayangadi Church during the pandemic and live streamed the event on Facebook.