Tom Nachreiner Plein Air – How and Why

Tom Nachreiner is consistently one of the most honored painters at the Door County Plein Air Festival. When I asked him to do a phone interview, he suggested I send hm questions and he would respond on writing. As I mention below, this was originally for the Peninsula Pulse, and as often is the case, I was half-way into my interviewing before I reviewed the assignment and realized I was asking the wrong questions, at least from my editor’s point of view.

Tom’s answered in great depth and combines autobiography with deep thought about art and some useful advice for anyone working in an artistic, relatively unstructured field.

Why do Plein Air?

I have so much to learn. For me, Plein Air is all about drawing, and getting back to basics, with out the aid of photography. It’s being young again, back in school when I first learned how to draw from life, and had others around me learning the same thing. It’s absolutely the best way to learn how to draw, and see things I have never been sensitive to before. It gets me out of the house and studio, away from my comfort zone which can inhibit me and keep me less outgoing socially too. Schools don’t teach how to draw from photos for good reason. It’s not the best way to learn how to draw or paint. It’s not the best way to find my unique, individual expression within. When painting outdoors I have several important factors to deal with that helps me to see better and to grow as an artist.

1. Plein Air is more specifically about capturing the light and shadow on the subject that gives it dimension and volume. It’s also about trying to capture the mood, personality, energy, and the abstract, dynamic composition that we can respond to emotionally. My most successful paintings show the light and form to be convincing, without looking photographic, by using lively, confident brushwork.

2. Plein Air gives me a deadline of approximately 3 hours to capture the fleeting, moving light outdoors. This forces me to paint quickly and efficiently and therefore, naturally and honestly spontaneous. It forces me to draw all the way through my painting making continual adjustments along the way, as opposed to filling in carefully drawn lines from a traced photograph. I find my paintings done in this manner look much more lush, juicy, alive, harmonious, energetic and less predictable.

3. Nothing in nature is white or black. I can see into shadows and catch the subtleties of value and color temperature, unlike painting from photo reference that show shadows as black, and show skies as white or an extremely bright blue.I see the warm and cool colors more easily outdoors, and by squinting I can see the hard and soft edges more clearly, along with the lightest light and the darkest dark. There’s so much more information than what a photo can bring, and by observing nature this way, I learn the science of how light and color works as it goes back in space and how light reflects back into the subject.

4. Experiencing the sounds, smells, the wind, and most important, the people and their energy and the story they tell in the environment I am painting, adds another dimension of information to a painting. I also benefit from people’s interest on the street in what I am doing and have a chance to meet, and learn from others.

5. Finally, when I paint outdoors my wife comes with me and reads and does crafts, so I have companionship, and we can share in the daily adventures, and maybe on occasion share a beer or glass of wine with friends doing the same thing.

Compare it with studio work?

Studio work, mostly in the winter, affords me solitude and more focused time and maybe more comfort to paint, with the ability to set up a controlled atmosphere with everything I want around me. However, this comfort can be a double edged sword, and sometimes not as motivating as a more competitive, unpredictable atmosphere, with energy in the air all around. Too comfortable and too much time sometimes can lead to less spontaneity and energy, I find. So in the winter, I try to paint one day plein air, one day a still life or from a model and one day from photo reference. I also try each winter to spend some time painting indoors and out down south. My studio time is more successful when mixing it with painting loosely plein air.I work hard making up deadlines so I don’t lose my energy and passion and spontaneity. I also set challenging goals for each painting I work on to try something different and new.

The studio is a wonderful place to create a still life environment or pose a figure and control lighting, All that can add to the creativity of the painting. It’s a good place to paint cool North light and warm shadows to switch it up from painting sunny days with warm light and cool shadows. Painting in this fashion, “from life”, is the most similar to plein air because of all the information I have, without any use of photography.

With a still life or figure, I can find the same amount of vast information and achieve convincing light even though they are indoor subjects. Photos are also important and can be a very helpful and successful tool. I just prefer not copying photographs. When I do paint from a photo I will usually work upside down so I see only abstract big and little shapes. In that way I can maintain my energy and spontaneity and can work more quickly because I’m not getting bogged down from the fussy detail of the subject matter, and it’s easier to see and improve the composition by simplifying.

The computer can be a helpful tool to improve the photo’s composition, color, or placement of objects. My years of being a digital illustrator come in handy here, and all my observation of nature helps me know how far to go with those changes.

What do you like to paint?

Mostly I like to just paint the light and shadow, and form, as I enjoy the experience of painting outdoors. I am drawn to water in many of my paintings.

To me it’s less about what I paint and more about how I paint it and the feeling I feel. Instinctively I look for a strong composition, and look for a strong sense of light with a noticeable center of interest, and let the rest fall where it may. I especially like painting ballet dancers when I can find ballet models. I also love to challenge myself to paint everything, everywhere that I find beauty.

Importance of nature?

Pure nature is harder for me to paint, because by instinct, I usually like to break up all of the soft nature forms and all those greens that are so similar in the summers of Wisconsin, with water, clouds, architecture or people. So the last couple of years I have concentrated on painting just pure landscapes, to try to improve.

At one time I painted nothing but cityscapes. Nature gets me away from all the straight lines of the city and God’s curved, graceful lines have opened up a new variety and discipline in my work. I find myself simplifying to make compositions work better for me.

Painting the figure is also all about those curved lines and shapes.

How do you avoid sentimentality in your work? (I like the bright storefront with a stop light in the left foreground at Edgewood Orchard.)

The painting you refer to is a night scene in a small town, with people outside, and a good example of getting away from typical subjects by also painting some at night. I work with loose brushwork, and use big brushes, so I think that helps my work look less typical or cliche. I think what can make a subject less typical is to find the abstract composition within.

But I don’t always feel successful in this effort. Some people dismiss plein air because it’s based on traditional art and painting what you see, and some think art should be more revolutionary. I search during each painting to find that something that makes my work contemporary and have a strong composition, even though it is based on reality.

I work hard towards my goals, to paint each paintings from my heart, to try to create my best work to date, work that makes me happy, and shows my inner spirit, and ultimately becomes a painting that I would be proud to have on a prominent wall in my home. I’ve found when I accomplish this, others seem to want it in their home too.

Finances – how long did it take you to make a living at this?

My background is as follows: I studied fine art my first year in college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I then switched to a private art school and studied illustration and design. In my first year at Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, I was hired part time by an advertising studio, after they saw my work in a student show. I have been a professional artist ever since. (Very Lucky) I was employed there through graduation and after for 10 years. Then I started Art Factory Ltd, my own Illustration and design studio with 25 employees in all at its peak, I ran the studio but was a hands-on illustrator along with 11 other illustrators, all nationally known. Later as a personal creative outlet to paint just for myself instead of clients, I started to slowly get into fine art and plein air painting as more less just a hobby for the shear love of it.

I had an opening show that made a big impact. (Very Lucky) I then became involved with galleries, and later switched over, full time in 2000, as I restructured the Art Factory. I’ve made my living as an artist all my life and have professionally done nothing else. For me it was all a natural transition and progression, and I’ve worked relentlessly toward my goals, although luck was a big contributor.

Benefits from my business ventures were that it gave me the understanding of marketing, mass appeal, and understanding human nature. That all helps now, as I teach workshops, judge art competitions, am a frame distributor to other artists, and still do some digital illustration. I am represented in galleries and sell some of my work on my own. I paint almost every day. I spend a percentage of my time giving back in appreciation for what I feel I was given.

Any advice for beginning artists who want to stop waiting tables in Brooklyn and spend more time doing art?

This is a tough one. Today is so different. I was lucky, but through real hard work and a vision, I was able to get a job drawing everyday, when advertising was in its “hey-day”.Most important is to define what your realistic attainable goal or vision is, that comes from inside your heart. To have vision this is areal gift in itself.

Find a knowledgeable mentor through school or someone you know and admire, to get good solid positive advice. In what I do, the most important thing for growth is drawing, and one can draw in pencil or charcoal anywhere. Carry a sketch book everywhere. Draw alone, but also find friends who share common interests and get together after work to draw together. On vacations or weekends take a workshop from an artist that you most admire. Get most of your inspiration by visiting the masters as often as you can in art museums. Don’t try to skip the basics, there are no shortcuts to success. Use your time wisely and efficiently, set goals, create a vision board and don’t give up. Stay away from negative people. and find a partner who reinforces your dreams and goals. Realize “if it’s meant to happen, it will.”

Stay open minded and keep adjusting your approach and your goals, and never stop working hard. if you can, follow your heart rather than the money. For example, take a job that won’t take you in the wrong direction and won’t cause you regrets later. (I know today that’s real hard, with fewer jobs.) College teaches you how to learn, but during the rest of your life, your education is in your own hands. Finally,if there are delays in achieving some of your goals, it’s still never “too late” to grow as an artist and to have fun painting, no matter what stage of learning you are at.