Thursday, November 19, 2020

En Plein Air, Watercolor, and Haiku

Cat sitting behind a little greenhouse and watering can
En Plein Air Watercolor Image
by Amy Lynn Hess

I have recently taken up watercolor painting, and although I've been painting with acrylics for over 20 years, I have found using watercolor challenging. 

With watercolor, I have to work quickly to capture movement, and the paint itself can sometimes define my lines for me, seemingly of its own will. Hues and values are created by working in layers, some layers and puddles or plops drying more quickly than others. The watercolor paper I have, unlike the stretched canvas I use for acrylic painting, warps into humps and bumps that create even more puddles and plops, and I've had to release my desire to rigidly control the paint. It simply goes where the water goes. 

Over the past few weeks, however, I've started to think about watercolor in a new way. I've started to think of this finicky paint as a tool for creating visual haiku, a way to quickly capture a moment, a bit of life, an observation of what's outside.


Although there are times when painting outdoors is simply untenable, there are definite benefits to trying it - benefits both artistic and philosophical, and maybe even literary.


En Plein Air, A View of What's Outside

The Wayne Art Center, sponsors of The Plein Air Festival in Wayne Pennsylvania, defines en plein air clearly and concisely: "En plein air is a French expression meaning 'in the open air', and refers to the act of painting outdoors with the artist's subject in full view." More than simply being outdoors while painting, another key element of plein air is to, to build upon this definition, directly view, observe, and therefore interpret what the artist is gazing upon with one's own eyes. 

Yet, unlike painting a still life, which is often prearranged and static, and unlike painting from another image or photograph, painting en plein air captures the movement of life, it's winds and dancing shadows, passing clouds, and changing light. 

Direct Observation

The value in direct observation is related partially to, well, value, in addition to the other characteristics of color and the elements of composition. Instead of working from a photograph, which is already representational and may or may not be a result of an artist's own direct observation, working from life allows for authentic representation of a moment, an articulation of the painter's gaze in the moment. To summarize Ingrid Christensen, a gallery artist and popular workshop instructor, the human eye is simply better than a camera's lens in almost every way. Whereas depth perception, saturation, focus, contrast, and brightness are fixed for the camera, and a two-dimensional representation of one fixed moment is produced by photography, our eyes adapt to the variability of life. Our eyes create a direct link with life, with a fleeting moment. 

In the Open Air

When painting en plein air, or in the open air, the observations painters make are of the outdoor environments in which they find themselves. In a few minimal strokes of paint, in perhaps only a few moments, a painter captures a scene, its season, with as much detail as necessary to help viewers enter that moment with the painter.

In writing haiku, the principles are similar. 

Principles of Haiku

The best explanation of haiku I have been able to find comes from writer Mark Blasini. He breaks down the principles into singularity, accuracy, accessibility, economy, and brevity.  

As Blasini explains these five principles, some of his verbiage seemingly applies to both plein air in general and watercolor painting, specifically: "Focus on a moment that you feel you have to share with another person," he says of the principle of singularity. As for accuracy, make it as "realistic, clear, and depictive as possible," he says. Accessibility refers to building a scene the readers can imagine, and in haiku this includes the principle of kigo, or the illustration of the season. The principles of economy and brevity should also both sound familiar to anyone who practices watercolor painting. Haiku and watercolor both require minimal use of materials, a layering of translucence,  and an ability to work quickly. Whereas Blasini explains that writers "keep the haiku sayable in one breath," watercolor painters keep images workable in one sitting, perhaps workable in one layer of water, maybe even in one unit of wetness.

Puddle and plop though they may, my watercolor challenges (and mistakes) have become something much more meaningful as my paradigm has shifted. Watercolor, especially when en plein air, is visual haiku.

As with haiku, my watercolor paintings can now become a single, observed moment I want to share with others, with an intended audience. They can become a fleeting moment I want to capture with as much detail as possible in order to help that intended audience experience my impressions of that moment. I can stop overworking the paper and overthinking my gaze, and think only of keeping my images to "one breath."

I can also get a little sunshine and fresh air, weather permitting.

Want to read more about haiku? Try

On Kaiseki and Haiku 

Works Cited

Blasini, Mark. “The Five Principles.” The Way of Haiku, 9 Oct. 2013,

Christensen, Ingrid. “Why You Should Draw from Real Life, Not a Photograph.” Artsy, 23 July 2019, 

“What Is Plein Air?” Plein Air Festival, Wayne Art Center, air/

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Mid-Pandemic Dramaturgy of Pandemic Performance

This year has ushered in changes to almost every facet of our lives, personal and professional. 

In an effort to protect our communities, we've responsibly distanced ourselves from them. Instead of attending church services in person, we've been watching broadcasts. Instead of attending professional conferences and meetings, we're participating in webinars and virtual meetings. Instead of attending school, we're doing our best to work from home. 

Instead of doing just about anything in person, we've turned to the internet in an effort to stay connected. 

From Stage to Screens

Yet, as difficult as it might be to worship, engage productively in meetings, or teach and remain motivated to learn online, many musicians and other live entertainers have had to reinvent their entire purpose. Gone are the days of playing in crowded, high energy, sometimes raucous venues. Fist-pumping dance clubs are closed up tight. Bars and restaurants have had to eliminate performance spaces to set up tables safe distances from one another. Musicians have turned to playing online, through YouTube, Facebook Live, Instagram, and Patreon, to name a few avenues. Some musicians have transitioned well; they are well-practiced and comfortable with mellow intimacy. Others, however, are having a hard time. Instead of playing in noisy, crowded spaces meant for high-octane socialization, many of those who used to play those venues are now being watched in high-definition with surround-sound in peoples' homes, with close-up views and pin-drop audio. 

It's the difference between stage and screen. What looks and sounds good on stage, from 50 to 100 feet away in a room full of laughter, service, and conversation, does not look and sound good on screen - whether that screen is in the palm of an audience member's hand or an 88-inch 8K. What's more, these musicians are having to compete with professionally produced and filmed productions, and they're having to make these adaptations quickly because their livelihoods depend on it. 

What are musicians up against? Patreon advertises they have over 200,000 creators on their site. As of the writing of this post, Socially Distant Fest has 175,400 members. That's just one of the many Facebook groups that's sprung up. There's a lot of chatter. Additionally, many local, early, or mid-career musicians are in direct competition with musicians "of means," with record deals and international renown. Whereas the latter can eek thousands of viewers in seconds and donate any and all donated proceeds to charity, the former are simply trying to pay their bills. They're hanging their comforters on the walls to make backdrops and using what they have at hand to try to appeal to fickle viewers who are likely to scroll on by in mere seconds if they don't stand out immediately. Cute kids seem to do well, as do quirky duos and pretty girls with ukuleles. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it takes courage and dedication to make a musical life pay the bills, and they should be lauded. But what about the 40-something rock-and-roll guy, the subtle singer/songwriter and folk singer, the jam band drummer, and the badass blues harmonica players? 

And Back to the Stage: Theatrical Elements

Aristotle suggested in The Poetics that all theatre performances need six unified elements in order to be successful: plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle. He was speaking specifically of Greek tragedy, but that's appropriate of pandemic performance, I believe.

How does someone make solo blues harmonica work in Dolby Surround-Sound? Do they ditch the comforter, give themselves and their space a hip makeover, and invest in audio and video equipment? Maybe. Maybe they learn to play the Theremin or a fire-belching saxophone, instead.

If someone does figure out how to make their music sound great in their space,  how do they get people to click on the video content? Maybe that requires a well-devised unity between their look and their sound? A little bit of narrative or story, an introduction or "get to know me" description. Or maybe they just need a gimmick, and another gimmick when that one gets old because all gimmicks get old - and yet gimmicks are spectacle, and spectacle works. 

After people click, how do the performers get them to stay? Do they take time between songs to chat with viewers, like an honored guest sitting with them around a virtual firepit or breaking bread (or pizza) on a Friday night? Because they are honored guests at this point, sometimes cast larger-than-life on television screens during dinner. Like in a Jane Austen adaptation, a musician may need to demonstrate the witty repartee of Mr. Knightly . . . but, Jane Austen was being ironic, so perhaps Dolly Parton is the better model? Or maybe it's just about character consistency or easy-to-identify archetypes these days, so no one has to take the time to figure things out.

If the viewers stay and continue watching, how do performers get a like or a share? Do they have to ask? If they figure out how to get a like or a share, how do they get that viewer to use the voluntary, virtual tip jar? Isn't it tacky to ask for money when you're an honored guest? Isn't it folly to ask your cousin or high school friends for money when you know they don't have any more than you do? So, how do you find and attract viewers who have the means to pay their troubadour, their honored guest? Should performances have themes? Should the set list demonstrate range and ability, an ability to perform in multiple genres? 

Questions without Answers

There are more questions than answers.

How many unpaid, online gigs is it going to take before these exceptionally talented musicians simply stop trying? They aren't producers, costumers, and set designers, and in order to learn how to use the latest and greatest apps, they're going to have to stop taking time to learn or create new material. Will they adapt? Some. Will they have the means to wait out the pandemic? Some. What will happen to the rest? Is this like the mythological first day of college when you're told to look to your right and to your left and assume both of those people won't be around in a few years? Maybe. We'll have to wait and see before we realize what we've lost.

Want to read more about dramaturgy and performance? Try

Production Dramaturgy: What's a Dramaturg Do?

Ancient Greek Theatre: Origins of the Term Deus Ex Machina

Medieval Era Morality Plays

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Our "Finally" Peas

Peas growing on a homemade trellis
The peas are beautiful, fruitful, and healthy.

This afternoon I spent time watering my garden: the red cabbage seedlings, the lettuce, and the new cabbage seeds, carefully saved from last year’s cabbages. I carefully planted them in compost from our carefully crafted compost pile, and the squirrels have since scattered them carelessly while seeking soft, safe places to hide their acorns and pecans. Not knowing where the cabbage seeds ended up after the squirrels’ bacchanalia, I carefully watered the whole area.

Peas Present

Nothing in the garden looks great in mid-October, generally, but while I watered, I noticed the marigolds and peas were still marvelously perky and vibrantly colorful.

I watered the peas, cuddled the cat, photographed the peas, and subsequently drew the peas and the cat. This afternoon’s weather was beautiful. The peas were too beautiful to ignore. They reminded me of peas past.

Peas Past

I remember two specific attempts to grow peas, or more accurately my attempts to grow peas and my father's attempts, I suspect, to connect with me in some way. It was easy for him to connect with my sister because she liked sports, and it was fairly easy to connect with my stepbrother, his stepson, because he lived there with him. Dad really had to try with me, though. I was the reader, the artist, the animal lover, the quiet type.

The first time we tried to grow peas we used a plastic flower box and maybe some dirt from the yard, topsoil and clay. He got some seeds and we followed the directions on the packet for spacing and depth. We watered them, I am sure. Dad took us back to our mother's for two weeks, and he was in charge of the peas. When we came back the soil was gray, so dry it was cracked like a broken ceramic pot. There were no peas.

We tried again. “Peas are easy to grow,” maintains Lee Taylor and the home gardening experts at Michigan State University’s Extension Service. The second time we tried he cut a 50-gallon blue plastic barrel in half long ways, and we filled it with soil and planted our peas. We did not, as Lee Taylor and the home gardening experts at Michigan State University’s Extension Service recommend, use compost, add stakes, plant in cool weather, or add an inch of water a week. Again, two weeks or every-other-weekend later, the soil was bone dry and all the potential life in the seeds had dried up, as well.

We didn't try again, but I did bring him dwarf Japanese Maple seedlings from my yard the year before he died, and they, too, dried up. I found the carcasses on the picnic table on the patio still in the plastic pots that had only ever been meant for transport.


Jane Shellenberger, author of Organic Gardener's Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West, states “There are many paths leading to a garden and many experiences awaiting those who venture in. No matter what your motive—whether to grow healthy, delicious food; spend time outdoors feeling more alive than your desk job allows; help save the planet; find relaxation, solace, or healing; meet your neighbors; get your hands in the sweet earth; or discover for yourself just how abundant and generous nature can be—a garden rarely disappoints. It’s a magnet for life in all its quirky, beautiful forms.” Whatever our pea-planting purpose may have been, I did stop to think about my dad today and appreciate his efforts, efforts I have not stopped to appreciate before.

I haven't been able to talk to him in over a year except distantly, through tertiary conversation with my stepmother (whose tomatoes flourished magically this year, by the way). We haven't laughed about something the cats have done or reminisced about funny little things like peas so dried up the soil cracked open. I haven't been able to bring him new plants in pots meant only for transport. He hasn't been able to marvel at our long growing season down here or tell me how excited he is to go hunting up there. Maybe, though, he's  had something to do with the peas this year, these beautiful, fruitful, healthy, peas; our “finally” peas.

Want to read more narrative essays? Try

Works Cited

Shellenberger, Jane. Organic Gardener's Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West. Fulcrum Publishing, 2012.

Taylor, Lee. “How to grow peas.” Smart Gardening, April 29, 2009,

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.