This spring I had the good fortune to plein air paint with British artist Haidee-Jo Summers when I attended her New Bern, North Carolina workshop.
Haidee-Jo Summers, a name that is well known among plein air enthusiasts who eagerly follow her Instagram posts, read her books, and enjoy her videos. I've followed Haidee-Jo for quite a while, and her first book, Vibrant Oils, had a huge impact on me, helping me make the leap to plein air painting and a looser, more impressionistic style.
Haidee-Jo Summers is a British painter who frequently paints beautiful plein air landscapes and seascapes, as well as glowing interiors and figures. She is a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (ROI) and the Royal Society of Marine Artists (RSMA). She is the author of two books: Vibrant Oils and Plein Air Painting with Oils: A Practical and Inspirational Guide to Painting Outdoors
Read her full bio here.
A Rare Opportunity
This May, Haidee-Jo was a special guest at Plein Air New Bern in New Bern, North Carolina, judging the competition and teaching two workshops. I just happened to see something pop up on social media that there was a little room left in one of her workshops. Knowing how unlikely it was that I'd have another chance to study with her any time soon, I grabbed a spot, and along with my friend Brandi McDermott, we planned our trip! New Bern is a day's drive from Northern Virginia making it something we could squeeze into our busy schedules. The town has loads of B&B's and some excellent restaurants, so it made for a fun girls' road trip for the two of us.
Our first day began with a meeting where all the participants introduced themselves to Haidee-Jo. She spoke briefly about some of her thoughts on painting and the plan for going out in search of subjects. Immediately I felt that she was a kind and down to earth person with a good sense of humor, so both Brandi and I were immediately at ease.
New Bern is a historic town on the water, filled with historic homes and lush gardens, and our plan for the rest of the morning was to have Haidee-Jo demo while we watched and asked questions.
One of the valuable things about an in person plein air workshop is watching as the artist chooses a composition from the seemingly endless choices that the landscape environment offers. One of the things that I love about her work is the way she often zooms in on small, charming vignettes that interest her personally. Although we had more picturesque subjects in New Bern than we knew what to do with, if you follow Haidee-Jo's career, you know that she can turn the most ordinary, easy to overlook things into a beautiful painting.
"Beauty, fortunately, can be found everywhere.
I believe that anything can be the subject of a
beautiful painting - it's the artist's vision that makes it so. The aim is to surprise and delight the viewer,
and have them say to themselves, 'I never saw it in that
-Haidee-Jo Summers, Vibrant Oils
We walked through the shady neighborhoods that surround the Tryon Palace and Haidee-Jo chose a trellis with roses against a red brick chimney on the side of a white colonial home. Along the side of the house was a bed of bright yellow flowers. It was raining slightly, but she was undaunted. If you really want to be a plein air painter it helps to learn to tolerate the elements!
Haidee-Jo is a generous teacher who peppered her demo explanations with plenty of tips that she’s learned over her many years of experience, talking us through the problem solving involved. She explained the colors she uses and how she mixes them, as well as her brushes and how she handles them.
She also passed around one of her gorgeous sketchbooks for us to flip through and get inspiration. After the demo we had lunch and then headed out to find our own subjects. She circulated from person to person giving feedback.
Around 5pm we gathered for a glass of wine and an opportunity to look at some of her original work that she had brought with her. It’s always a treat to see an artist work in person. There is so much you often miss from little social media thumbnails. The luminosity and depth of her work is even more astonishing in person than online.
On our second day we had an unexpected treat as one of the lovely volunteer gardeners agreed to pose for Haidee-Jo’s morning demonstration. I was thrilled because figures are something I would love to paint more. Getting to observe HJS painting a figure in the landscape was an added treat.
Haidee-Jo was in her element as her subject could easily have been in a leafy English garden. Despite all the yummy details that draw you in, it’s really her handling of dark and light shapes and her ability to simplify that make her paintings successful. She keeps her work fresh by focusing on a simple statement and avoiding over-working the canvas.
"Say what you need to say in the painting, then get out.
There's no use chattering on after you have made your point."
- Haidee-Jo Summers, Plein Air Painting with Oils
My plein air paintings and takeaways
While not completely embarrassing, my workshop paintings are never what I’d consider my best work, nor are they really supposed to be. The new ideas filling my brain, the attempts at new techniques in an unfamiliar environment mean the brain is stretching and growing. It's forming new connections (I hope)! But there’s always a little part of me that would love to create a show stopper!
On the first day, I painted the above painting being attracted to the bright white painted garden gate popping amid dark greens. It rained off and on, and at times I painted while holding an umbrella. But painting in the changing elements is part of the adventure of plein air painting, and I felt like one of the great masters sacrificing for my art!
In contrast, the second afternoon of painting was broiling hot and humid. I found a shady spot in a green space behind the museum to paint an old outbuilding. It's currently used as a public bathroom, but who cares? With its lamp post and flower beds, it could be a charming cottage, right? I did make the rookie mistake of changing my light patterns as the day moved from overcast to bright sunlight. Still, it was a fun learning experience to be able to paint and get feedback from a professional artist.
I left this workshop feeling inspired to get out more and paint plein air more often. I feel better able to choose subjects with confidence and my work has grown in the months since. Watching Haidee-Jo's demos in person allowed me to see every step of her process, and it has helped me enormously. Although I'm still not as hardy as I would like to be about getting out in unpleasant weather, I was inspired, as I always am when I see HJS paint. I have gotten a little tougher.
I still find myself over-working paintings, but I keep going back to her timer exercises in Vibrant Oils to help overcome this and remembering her advice about "getting out" when you've said all you need to say.
If you love Haidee-Jo's work and have enjoyed her videos and online demos, then it's worth it to look for an opportunity to study with her in person. However, even if you can't, her books are invaluable resources for the contemporary impressionist painter. A must have in your library!
Are you a fan of HJS? Have you enjoyed her books and videos? Comment below and let's talk!