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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Millard

Painting Outdoors (en Plein Air) in Kentucky

Updated: Jan 11

A Cherokee chief in Kentucky was quoted as saying to Daniel Boone: “Brother, we have given you a fine land, but I believe you will have much trouble in settling it.”

The Wild Lands of Kentucky

Even today, much of the forests in Kentucky are untamed and dense. Chestnut trees may not grow here anymore, but the massive white oaks are still around, towering above hundreds of other species of trees that canvas the hills and valleys in much of Eastern and Western Kentucky.

Trees, mist and a knob or mountain top in Kentucky
The colorful Kentucky Appalachians

Wild turkeys still roam freely all over. I keep warning Timothy, the wild turkey that adopted our yard, to stay away from the road so that he doesn’t become somebody’s Thanksgiving dinner. He turns his head to make eye contact and quietly gobbles to himself as he slowly backs away and slips into the woods behind our house for a few minutes, waiting for me to disappear back into the house before he ventures back out.

Kentucky wild turkey walking with a hen
Timothy, the wild turkey that lives in our back yard

It is Not Just About Trees & Turkeys (Well, Maybe…)

Large swatches of Kentucky are still very wild. Much of the land, forests, caverns, ponds, creeks, rivers, lakes, hills, hollers and historical landmarks are untamed and full of beauty; waiting to be captured by artists and shared with the world.

Hikers take a break and cool off in a river and waterfall
Cooling off in a waterfall at Red River Gorge Geological Area

What is Painting “En Plein Air”?

Painting outdoors, or painting “en plein air” first became popular by French Impressionist painters in the late 1700’s who wanted to capture the changing light on landscapes during different times of the day. Monet is probably the most widely known plein air painter. The Hudson River School painters were also painting en plein air in America in the mid 1800’s. They portrayed realistic detailed nature and believed the American landscape was a reflection of God.

Beautiful, dreamy landscape painting by Thomas Cole
Painting by Thomas Cole, Founder of Hudson River School of Painting

The Tradition is Alive!

Plein air artists can be found all over the world. One of the first art groups I connected with when I moved to Kentucky was the Plein Air Artists of Central Kentucky. My first outing with that group was at a nature reserve. I began to paint en plein air four years ago at Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio and I have been a plein air enthusiast ever since. Plein air painting encompasses my 3 favorite things in life:

1.) Being outdoors

2.) Marveling at nature

3.) Painting nature

The author is painting outdoors by a flower garden
A photo of me painting at a private residence south of Lexington, Kentucky

That Magical Feeling

Plein air artist groups meet outdoors during the warmer months. Sometimes we meet at historical sites or private properties that offer us sweeping vistas and layers of farm or forest landscapes. On occasion, one day in particular might stand out as special to us. One of my most treasured paint outs was at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill outside of Lexington, KY. Painting a 250 year-old flower garden and old Shaker guest house was a complete delight. The early afternoon light, the vivid colors and the stories of the past all merged into a lovely day of painting.

A chalk pastel painting of an old Shaker building and flower garden
The Flower Garden at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky

When I try to find words to describe that day and that scene, I repeatedly come up with the word “magical”. The light was just right. The weather was beautiful. Tours of Shaker Village were closed, so it was quiet and serene sitting under the shade of a large maple tree. The hum of bees over the flower garden, the painting was going in the right direction; everything flowed together in a rhythm. The only word that fits that day is “magical”.

Painting En Plein Air is For Everyone!

Painting outdoors is a heavenly experience for lovers of the outdoors and for ANYBODY interested in making art. I lose track of time whilst out in the middle of the hum of crickets and cicadas, surrounded by happy chattering birds, and the soft sounds of leaves rustling and falling.

An artist's chair and painting sit under a tree overlooking a field
An abandoned golf course makes for a beautiful field landscape painting

Each artist has their our own way of painting and we each use all mediums. Some of us work with pencil or charcoal, maybe we sketch or paint with watercolor or gouache or chalk pastels. Some of us are strictly oil painters and some acrylic. Some are collage artists, carefully shaping paper to replicate the lay of the land/water/foliage/sky.

In another article, I’ll share some suggestions on how to get started painting outdoors. ANYBODY can do it! As long as you have a love for being outdoors, can select a scene you feel a connection to, and if you have a desire to capture the beauty that surrounds you - you can do it too!

About the Author

Jennifer Millard is a plein air artist and surface designer. She lives in eastern Kentucky with her husband, two cats, two dogs and wild turkey named Timothy. Living in a small rural town near the Kentucky River, Jennifer can be found painting outdoor landscapes that capture the cultural, historical and dreamlike essence of the land, water, trees and wildlife. Her favorite book is Cold Mountain. When she is not painting outdoors, she is designing for textiles and surfaces, weekend traveling and helping her husband create art for his RPG podcast’s website.


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