The nearly 200-year adventure of artists coming to Flagstaff Mountain to capture the beauty of the rolling Pocono foothills and the meandering Lehigh River basin continued this summer as a University of the Arts plein art class recently spent several days painting outdoors on the windswept Flagstaff ballroom balcony.
Artist/instructor Joe Sweeney's class of four art teachers, who wanted to learn how to improve their knowledge of plein air and landscape painting, signed up for the Jim Thorpe-based class coordinated through the Carbon County Cultural Project.
Plein air is painting outdoors.
"There's no substitute for being out in the open air painting," Sweeney said. "You can mix the actual color that exists and put that onto the canvass, and it makes the canvass look richer."
"There's a sense of light you can see in the painting," Sweeney explained. "Plein air art versus a studio painting is like night and day. Whites are brighter. Blues are richer. There's a lot more contrast and saturation."
He tells his students to overcome the tendency to be timid or their painting will look washed out.
Plein air is challenging for the painter. Not only does the artist have to work quickly to overcome the movement of clouds and shadows, the artist must work with the weather. Days can be hot, cold, rainy or even snowy.
When he paints in cold weather, Sweeney works fast, and it is reflected in his work. In summer, he advises his students to "make sure you have sunscreen, bug spray, water, and a hat. You are basically camping when you are out in the open air."
Most of Sweeney's students had not painted outdoors before studying with him. They typically painted still lifes in a studio.
"I had to learn to read the sky and look at the weather," said student Kristen Miele-Beatty of Exeter, who was taking her second painting class with Sweeney. "I love Jim Thorpe. It's an artistic community. It's the Alps of Pennsylvania with its rolling hills, vast sky and great light. I feel fortunate to be able to paint in this environment."
Barbara Cortese, a Pleasant Valley art teacher from Hazleton, is taking the class to "brush up."
"I never took landscape painting and many of my students are fine art majors," she said. "It's challenging painting in the high wind up at Flagstaff. The colors are more dramatic. You see more color in every object. It's totally different when you mix the colors."
Bucks County art teacher Colleen Carney thinks of the class as an "art vacation."
"It's a challenge to keep pace with the ever changing landscape, light, colors and clouds," said Ellie Keys of New Philadelphia who teaches art K through eighth grade. "I love being outside in such a beautiful area."
Sweeney discovered his love for outdoor painting while stationed on a Navy destroyer in the North Atlantic.
"The ship was armed with a nuclear warhead," he said. "Being so close to a weapon that can wipe out everything in a second, you get to think about your life and how to spend the rest of your time. I decided I wanted to paint."
Sweeney has been teaching plein air in Jim Thorpe for the past six years. He initially came to jury a show at the invitation of Victor Stabin and Joan Morykin. He liked what he saw, received authorization to teach the course, and has been returning ever since.
"This could be Europe," Sweeney said of the view from Flagstaff. "There are rolling hills, open landscape, and places to look up and down. It's a dream come true for a landscape painter."