KOCHI: Sundays are usually meant for leisure. A day to unwind. A day when hitting the snooze button is allowed, to dream a bit more. But for this group of artists, the day starts early. It is a day reserved for an old French affair. An artistic affaire de coeur.
Every Sunday morning, these artists wake up at dawn and, by 8am, assemble at a pre-decided spot in the city, clenching their paraphernalia — easel, watercolours, and paintbrushes.The spots are usually ones that invigorate creativity, like the beach walkway of Fort Kochi or the bustling markets of Mattancherry. And then, after a brief chai pe charcha, they split, hunting for each one’s muse for ‘en Plein air’ — or what’s called Plein-air painting.
Popularised by French artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes in the 18th century, the artform is described as the “practice of painting landscape pictures out-of-doors; more loosely, the achievement of an intense impression of the open air in a landscape painting”. Plein air simply means ‘open air’. Last Sunday, I joined this unique group of artists for a dose of Plein air creativity. This time, the artists — from the groups Watercolour Plein Airs and Urban Sketchers of Kochi — had chosen the calm shores of Vypeen as the base camp.
“This is our first time at Vypeen,” says artist Ajeesh Kochi. “At least 10 artists have come; some from Piravom and Thrissur, too.” After walking around the beach, the artists head in different directions. Most of them set up their workstations under trees that offer good shade. Some choose to sit on a rock by the shoreline.
There I saw Sajeev K S, completely immersed in his work under a tree. He has been doing Plein-air for about 10 years.“Earlier, I used to come alone to Fort Kochi, Vypeen and other parts of Ernakulam, and paint to my heart’s content,” he says. “That is how I developed a chemistry with watercolours.”Sajeev says Plein-air is one of the best ways to learn and “experience” painting. “Working in a studio would never give me such joy,” he says.
“Here, I am watching the light move, waves hitting the shore, the Chinese nets being lowered to the water, ships passing by.... There is a lot of movement, a lot of things happening around you. There are umpteen things to paint.” And, how does one choose what to paint from this melange? “It’s difficult,” he says, laughing as he takes out his paintbrush and colours. “But as you walk around, something would strike, stir you. That’s how one gets a focus point.”
Sajeev starts painting the view of Fort Kochi on the other side of the calm waters. Soon, Chinese nets, buildings and fishermen appear on his canvas.“You don’t need to paint the scene as it is,” he says, during a brief pause. “You give it depth and colour using your imagination. Sometimes you eliminate something from the scene and add something else there.”
Ajeesh enters the conversation. “Similarly, the lighting changes as time passes,” he says. “But you can imagine an evening or early morning, and paint the view. You capture the feel, the soul of the scene, that’s all. You don’t need to reproduce everything as it is.”
Birth of a bonhomie
The Plein-air picnics started when Sajeev started the Watercolour Plein Airs group on Facebook some years ago. Weekly outings began as a “team activity” with his friends and students, at various spots across Kochi. Subsequently, the Urban Sketchers group joined them. A key member of Urban Sketchers, Artist Prashanth, is busy shooting the video for his art-and-travel vlog on YouTube. “I do this once I finish painting,” he says.
Prashanth says he has been active in Kochi’s art scene since 2012, but started exploring Plein air painting just two years ago. “It is great fun to paint as a group,” he says.“Urban Sketchers is a global organisation. Though it is active in many countries, in Kerala, it’s at a nascent stage. I hope to promote outdoor painting through my vlogs.”
Prashanth adds he has “big plans” for the group. “We hope to go global, send artists from Kerala abroad for the Urban Sketchers meet-ups and competitions,” he says, “Now, Thrissur also has a unit of Urban Sketchers. Soon, I hope, every city in Kerala will have Plein-air painters.”
‘Some call us crazy’
Ajeesh says passersby are often amused by the group’s activities. “Some are curious, and ask us if it’s some kind of a competition,” he says. “Some call us crazy. Well, we do this because we love it, and to inspire the younger generation to lift the brush and paint.” Members chorus that “anyone can join us anytime”. Even I get an invite.
“We would love to share ideas and art material with any passerby who wants to experience the joy of Plein-air painting,” says Ajeesh, as ‘freshers’ ask seniors doubts about enhancing their art.
“It’s a free space, no restrictions. If you see us on the way and want to join in, we would be more than glad to welcome you.”
Notably, many of the painters I bump into are not from fine-arts backgrounds, or professionally active artists. There is a techie, an airport employee, a lawyer, and two architecture students among the painters.
The lawyer, Eroor Biju, believes “this is a better activity than going out for a drink”, which is quite common over Malayali weekends.
“And certainly better than squabbling with my wife over silly things,” he quips, creating work using ink.
‘L5,000 on the spot’
Just a little away, artist Wilssy Johnson is painting in solitude. “This is a great activity; it helps hone one’s skill,” she says.
Just a week ago, Wilssy reveals, she sold a painting on-site for `5,000. “I was with the group, painting a boathouse,” she gushes. “A passerby came to me and asked if he could buy my work. He asked how much it would cost, and I blurted out the first figure that came to my mind.”
Wilssy adds she recently moved back from Bengaluru to Vypeen. “And, I’m alone at home, after my husband died a few years ago. As I found this group, I have been painting outdoors again,” she says.
State award-winning artist Sajeeve Basheer is one of the ‘seniors’ in the group. “I have been doing Plein-air for years. But this is my first time with a group,” he says. “It’s more fun this way.”
Sajeeve is, in fact, known for his outdoor paintings. “I have been doing it alone, visiting villages in Kerala,” he says. “However, people sometimes turn suspicious when they see someone painting away in their village. In Kochi, however, one can paint at ease.”
Passersby keep stopping to observe the canvases. Some have a chat with the artists, to clear their curiosity. Some decide to buy paintings and wait till the works are finished. By about 12.30pm, the group packs up. Next Sunday, in some other corner of Kochi, they agree before dispersing.