The Art of Plein-Air Painting

Heidi Reeves | Lake Toys

Sitting on a deck overlooking a mass of pine trees, rollicking chipmunks and a peek of Lake Tahoe, plein-air artist Heidi Reeves sees a wealth of artistic possibilities.

“You’re constantly looking at shadows and light; you start seeing a painting everywhere you look. In the beginning, it’s kind of overwhelming with what’s around you, but then you stop and see all the possibility,” the North Tahoe Arts member says.

Plein Air Open
Sept. 5-10
Artists painting en plein air

Sept. 6
Painting demonstration & social | North Tahoe Arts Center

Sept. 7
8 a.m.-1 p.m. | Quick Draw Competition | Commons Beach

Sept. 9 & 10
11 a.m.-5 p.m. (4 p.m. Sunday) | Public Exhibit & Sales | Village at Northstar

As a Kings Beach local since 1979, Reeves got into plein-air painting about 13 years ago when she took a class from Tahoe watercolorist Randall Stauss. In his workshop, students met at a North Shore beach and spent a day painting a live model.

“It was incredible to be outside. It opened the window to seeing color in a different way.” – Heidi Reeves

“It was incredible to be outside. It opened the window to seeing color in a different way. It’s totally different than just looking at a photograph. It adds a whole new dimension,” she says.

In the all-day plein-air session, Reeves noticed that some artists painted in the morning when the shadows were long then took a break and had lunch, maybe scoping out new locations. In the afternoon, they switched gears and moved to paint the same landscape from a different angle or something new altogether.

“Others lock in the shadows and stick with what they remember from the morning,” she says. “It takes a while to set up, so a lot of artists will stay in one spot for as long as they can before moving somewhere else.”

Reeve’s method is to paint what is in front of her in the morning, take a lunch break and paint what’s behind her in the afternoon. “It’s all about the light and the shadows throughout the day. The challenge for me is to stick with the original idea of what I have before the light changes,” she says.

Heidi Reeves | Carmel Beauty

Keeping a snapshot image in one’s head as she or he paints is a difficult thing to accomplish and some plein-air artists will go back to the same location at the same time on multiple days to complete their canvas. It’s the reason why many people paint on smaller canvases — a standard plein-air piece is 8 inches by 10 inches — it gives a plein-air painter more of a chance to finish the painting before the shadows move.

Although Reeves began plein-air painting in watercolor, she soon switched to pastels at a time when she felt like changing up her medium and has never gone back.

“Pastel is opaque, so you don’t have to reserve your whites like in watercolor,” she says. “Just like with oil painting, you paint dark to light, thin to thick. It’s good to block in the shadows first and then you don’t get the urge to change your project when the light changes. Pastel is a pure pigment that’s a more preserved medium than oil.”

As a member of North Tahoe Arts, Reeves is a supporter of the upcoming North Lake Tahoe Plein Air Open from Sept. 5 to 10: it’s one of the organization’s biggest events. It begins with the Farmers’ Market Quick Draw Competition on Sept. 7 where artists create real-time paintings in a two-hour competition.

Heidi Reeves painting on location

“Artists like it because it’s immediate and spontaneous,” Reeves says. “People are milling around because of the farmers’ market — it’s fun and interactive with the artists and public there.” This will be her fourth year participating in the event and she is enthusiastic that it will be held at Northstar California in conjunction with the annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival.

“There’s a lot going on in Tahoe in such a short season and you can’t be everywhere, so why not combine two great events? Art needs viewers, it needs the public,” she says.

At the end of the week when all of the final pictures are displayed, Reeves says it’s interesting to see the variety of the artwork and artists’ perspectives.

“We’re hoping this will be the bumper year for the artists, the people who enjoy art and great events going on all week. Tahoe is also a great place for plein-air artists. Who wouldn’t want to come here for a week to paint?”

For more information on North Lake Tahoe Plein Air Open, visit