Pleinair Painting as Slow Travel

I’ve been a professional artist most of my life. My studio work has primarily been landscape based, so wouldn’t it stand to reason I’d also enjoy pleinair (outdoor) painting? Well I do, but I didn’t…. Let me explain.

In my younger days I painted outdoors because I felt it was something I should do as an artist – an obligation of sorts. Plein air painting was supposed to be good for me, part of the landscape tradition, but truth be told, it was usually a huge disappointment. I’d return home with little more than some mediocre watercolors and the feeling I’d missed something. Plein air painting was not an activity I looked forward to. So what changed?

An early Italy pleinair painting from the early nineties

In a word, it was Italy. I loved every minute of my first visit back in the early nineties. I had never been to a place that thrilled me more, visually, emotionally – my senses were so alive. I felt connected even though I was a stranger who did not speak the language.

Pleinair painting was my introduction to slow travel. We stayed in that Tuscan town for three weeks – never bored for an instant. The act of painting enabled me to linger, to observe, to savor everything I saw, heard and smelled. It also afforded me the opportunity to meet locals – a few of whom have remained my friends to this day.

Back in 2001 we lived in Spello (Umbria) for a month. I much prefer the freedom and expression in this little watercolor.

One of my favorite pleinair paintings. This one went very quickly.

It would be most romantic to imagine I returned home from that first Italy trip with a stack of good paintings. That was not the case, however another profound thing happened that totally changed my outlook. I didn’t care whether the paintings  I made were any good or not! I stopped caring about the “product” and started  loving the “process.” Interestingly enough, that’s when my pleinair paintings began improving, as if the pleasure of the act had finally found its way into the work.

A photo taken in a hidden corner in Gubbio in Northern Umbria.

A simple pleinair painting of the same site. You can see many liberties are taken

I often use this analogy: if a fisherman simply likes to eat fish it would be much easier to go to the fish market and by one. But fishermen love to fish. Most will tell you there’s never a bad day out on the water. Of course it’s great if you land a big one, but it’s all about the experience, not hanging some trophy on the wall.

My wife Barbara frequently attracts a crowd of admirers when she draws outdoors.

I encourage our clients to go slow and savor. This applies to artists and non-artists alike.  If you’re a painter, quit trying to hit a home run and don’t worry about producing something “wall worthy.” Keep it simple. Even a basic sketchbook, scrapbook, or travel journal can be used as a visual diary – a means of locking in the senses. I purposely use the cheapest composition notebooks for my travel journaling – no beautiful leather-bound volumes for me. I don’t want to be intimidated or obligated to say something profound. No one needs to read what I’ve written. I’m not submitting my writing to the New Yorker. My journal is for me – as are my paintings.

My next post will cover a few of the practicalities for any readers looking to get started painting on your travels.


Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.

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