I know the joy of writing outdoors well. Whether it’s journalling in my latest black elasticated notebook, or tapping away on my phone screen. The latter is not quite as romantic, but my Notes app has seen some of my most impulsive remote work. When I write outdoors, I usually write by the sea. By the sea is where I’ve always lived in both of my home countries, apart from a year in London. I couldn’t quite get my head around the lack of open water. A person who’s grown up by the sea knows that sometimes, only being alone on the water’s edge will do. There are few things that the docile sound of the waves lapping against the shore can’t help with, whatever the issue.
Artist Joanne Fenech Portelli, who’s solo exhibition ‘JOY’ has just opened at DESKO, Valletta, clearly shares the same sentiment. Her exhibition of thirty-eight works which will be on show until the 22nd of June are a documentation, as well as a celebration of the Maltese natural landscape.
Fenech Portelli, b.1976, studied painting and drawing under Maltese artists Dr. Joseph Paul Cassar, Charles Cassar, Anton Calleja, Alfred Briffa, Philip Agius and Joseph Chetcuti. She studied sculpture in clay techniques with artists Angelo Agius, and again Joseph Chetcuti – under whose instruction she followed a three-year course at The Malta School of Art. The artist has been active in the exhibition sphere since 2003, and in 2006 was one of the founding members to set up the Pastel Society of Malta and appointed Treasurer. The artist is a regular participant in acclaimed overseas painting festivals and artists’ residencies.
Fenech Portelli’s muses range from coast to country, via manicured gardens and fields rich with indigenous flowers. Each and every painting exhibited was painted on location, at the very spot depicted. ‘JOY – The Art of Painting Outdoors’ is an inspiring look into the act of taking your craft into the open.
The resurgence of en plein air art is notable in the social media sphere. There are Facebook groups aplenty, and Instagram is awash with a revival easily found under hashtags used by the community. Search #enpleinair or #traveljournal, and you’ll be met with hundreds of thousands of posts; #watercolour and you’re talking millions— a large percentage of which are painted outdoors. Whether from a cafe or a botanical garden, the pleasure of painting and drawing en plein air is palpable.
There is an en plein air community in Malta who regularly meet up, usually on a Sunday, to do what brings them joy. They pack their paints, water bottle and lunch, and, importantly, a fold up chair. They bring along their medium of choice, sketchbook, canvas, board or paper, and set to work manifesting what they see before them, be it a poppy field in Siggiewi or boats bobbing away in Kalkara Bay. In the month of April, a worldwide painting challenge was held – The International PleinAirpril Painting Challenge – organised online by Warrior Painters in the USA. One en plein air painting a day. Joanne Fenech Portelli partook in, and completed said challenge, and all thirty paintings are exhibited as part of ‘JOY’.
The unruly mezzotemp nature of the month of April was tricky on the artists at times. Some days were fine, but others too windy or too cold to even venture outside of the artists’ parked cars. But, alas, the small canvases were duly propped against the steering wheel and the artists looked out into the open through the windscreen. Whatever the forecast, great effort was made to find the time, each day, to fit in a complete painting from start to finish.
There must be something that keeps en plein air painters venturing out, rain or sunshine, that painting from a photograph in their studios can’t compare to. In the words of Fenech Portelli, it is a number of interesting factors. “When I am painting outdoors, I am embedded in the location. I can feel its pulse: I can see, hear, smell, and actually get to live and experience that moment in time,” she tells Indulge.
“The painting itself becomes a documentation of that day in my life. It becomes a part of me, and these paintings become a diary of my life.”
“You could even say it becomes history, because certain places change- a cliff could erode, buildings change, any landscape can change, naturally or invasively. These paintings remain as a memento of that time, which will never repeat itself in the same way.”
“Painting on location makes a big difference. Outdoors I am part of the surroundings I am painting, while in the studio I see the photo on a screen, and I am in that comfort zone. Apart from the fact that our eyes see better than a camera, dimension wise and colour wise, when I paint outdoors I am not comfortable at all. I have to stand or sit in the same position for long periods of time, I can’t move away from the easel, do something else and then continue later. I have to finish it on that day. Another day things might look very different. So this pressure of having to start and finish on the same day makes me think fast and take risks that I might not take in my studio.”
“Working all prima helps me to keep my work fresh with bold brushstrokes that can only be felt when I paint from life. The fact that I can use my senses while painting makes all the difference.”
“When I look at each of my paintings, I can envision and recall that particular day, what the weather was like, what I heard, what I saw, who I met. Outdoor painting is an adventure in itself, away from comfort, but oh so worthwhile in life experiences.” – Joanne Fenech Portelli.
Fellow Maltese artist and keen en plein air illustrator Jade Zammit also favours many factors of outdoor drawing. “To me, nothing compares to drawing from observation.” she tells Indulge. “The shadows, the details, the depth; everything feels so much more real.”
“I feel like this pandemic has personally presented me with the perfect opportunity to return to nature, to be a part of it, experience it first hand and exploit its full potential. Drawing outdoors is an experience each time. It’s my time alone, my time to think, my time to soak in my surroundings and learn to appreciate them.”- Jade Zammit.
JMW Turner, British master of seascapes and sunsets was an avid enthusiast of painting on location. John Constable painted almost entirely outdoors in the Suffolk countryside.
Impressionists Monet and Renoir favoured en plein air painting, often within parks and stately manors. Thought sadly lacking in Malta, there are a number of gems open to the public. Some, like Villa Frère – a favourite of Fenech Portelli’s – are open to the public once a month, against a donation made to the upkeep of restoration works on the premises.
Twentieth century artist Selden Connor Gile, one of the most celebrated en plein air American Painters, often depicted his local coves and beaches in his work. Like the Californian coast, the Maltese coast lends itself well to fervent brustrokes of seaspray and shoreline.
Standout pieces exhibited in ‘JOY – The Art of Painting Outdoors’ are the artists’ courtyards and lemon and orange groves. They’re a reminder of the trees and flora we may not allocate enough time to visiting. I certainly fall victim to this. Whilst I find joy in days at the beach, Sunday drinks or coffees and dinners with friends, I very rarely, if ever, make plans to frequent what make up part of Malta’s most stunning woodlands and valleys.
The Mediterranean climate blesses us with bountiful material to ignite the senses. The taste of a torn off piece of Maltese bread oozing with cold-pressed olive oil , the feel of rich soil falling through your fingers, the surreal pops of orange on tree branches, lemon zest, bees buzzing… This alone should be a wake up call to rethink my weekend arrangements once in a while. The exhibition ‘JOY’ has ignited my desire to do so.
Even for the non-painter, ‘JOY – The Art of Painting Outdoors’ is an inspiration, and a visual invitation to get outdoors. Joanne Fenech Portelli’s work acts as a reminder to find pleasure in peace and simplicity. To marvel at the sheer beauty of nature, to reflect in awe at its wonders, and to validate the notion that the best things in life are free.