Paul Boecher set up a mini-art studio on the tailgate of his pickup truck in a Fridley parking lot last Thursday morning.

To a passerby, the spot outside the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts might not have seemed all that picturesque. But painting is about “finding new ways of seeing,” Boecher said.

Boecher is part of an informal group that meets each week to paint “en plein air,” a French term meaning in the “open air.” It’s a fun way to paint, socialize and get outdoors, he said, and it often calls for adapting on the fly.

On this day, Boecher and a couple of other core members of the group had intended to paint by the nearby Mississippi River, but an icy path made them rethink that.

The parking lot, where they could home in on the trees and houses around the center, was a safer bet.

The “plein air” group, which varies in size depending on the week, has been going for several years, year-round. It includes artists of all ages and backgrounds, and many of them initially met through the Roseville-based Northstar Watermedia Society.

The “plein air” artists venture into various places in the metro area and beyond.

This includes a mix of natural and urban settings, like Silverwood Park in St. Anthony, the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, the Eidem Homestead in Brooklyn Park and the Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park.

One benefit of painting with a group like this is that “you feel more obligated to go out and do that as opposed to saying you don’t feel like it,” said Boecher, a retired art director.

Several of the artists are especially hard-core, sometimes braving the elements in the winter.

They bundle up, and they use oils or “open acrylics,” which don’t dry as fast as other paints, Boecher said.

A welcome escape

On Thursday, it was sunny and in the upper 30s, a welcome change from previous “paint outs.”

For Boecher, who shed his coat at one point, this translated directly onto the canvas, which was characterized by warm tones.

Looking at it, “I feel like I’m at the beach,” he said, joking that one thick dark line was the beginning of a palm tree.

A bonus, he said, was hearing the birdcalls all morning.

In a sense, “This is one way for me to travel to places I like to be. It’s an escape,” and a low-budget one at that, he said.

“Plein air” painting also has given him a greater appreciation for his home turf. “There’s some real beauty in our city,” he said.

When working outside, “you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Although the group always gets permission before they show up somewhere, “Sometimes people get a little leery of you coming around,” he said, adding that he’s been kicked out of a few places.

More commonly, though, passersby are intrigued by the artists’ in-progress paintings. “They always have opinions,” Boecher said.

There are other hazards: a delivery truck might come by and block the view indefinitely, or, “You end up with bugs in the painting, or raindrops.”

On Thursday, Boecher’s canvas fell to the ground, smearing the wet paint. He took it in stride: “You have to be adaptable. You don’t always have a great painting, but you can learn something.”

Making adjustments

Richfield resident Ron Wilson, another regular with the group, seconded that idea. On Thursday, he got lost on his way to Banfill-Locke. Then, once he got there, he realized he was missing some materials, including a surface to paint on.

“It’s not my day today,” he said, as he set up his easel, shaking his head and smiling.

Still, he persevered, making do with watercolor paper that he bought at Banfill-Locke — maybe not an ideal surface for acrylics, but fine in a pinch.

He also borrowed a water can, a recycled coffee container, from Boecher, to wash off his brushes.

It wasn’t long before his painting began to take shape.

By the end, “I got a couple of good paintings out of the deal,” he said.

In the zone

During the “paint out,” the men worked quietly, taking only occasional breaks to let the paint dry, talk shop and check out each other’s progress.

Even though they were painting the same scene from only slightly different vantage points, their pieces varied wildly.

“Your personality and history comes through when you do a painting,” said Wilson, a former art teacher.

Tom Dimock, a retired graphic designer who lives in Columbia Heights, explained: “You’re interpreting as you go along.”

In “plein air” painting, “You make your decisions really quickly,” he said. “What you started with two hours ago can be radically different” later on.

That is, the lighting changes quickly. “Some painters will say, ‘I gotta chase that light,’ ” he said.

Dimock, though, said: “I try to stick with my original plan.”

Still, weighing the possibilities is part of the fun, he said, as he tried to decide whether to deem his current oil painting done.

Even if he goes the wrong way, with too much or too little detail, it’s a chance to grow as a painter.

These leisurely outings work well for that. “You’re in that zone. It’s almost like your sensory perception is turned up,” he said, adding that cataract surgery has helped, too.

In this setting, it’s as if “the whole world is right there for you,” he said.


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis free-lance writer.