UNSTOPPABLE: An Age- Defying Plein Air Painter


Nancy Silvia at Acadia National Park, Maine

“I began painting outdoors at around 45 years of age,” says 81-year-old Nancy Silvia. “I was living in rural New Jersey at the time and just beginning to concentrate on landscape as my primary subject. Working large —  22 x 30 or 29 x 40 inches — in pastel, I mainly painted looking out of the windows of my house and thought that might be a kind of plein air painting. I also did small sketches on location, but the weather was never ideal — too hot and humid, too cold, too much rain, or too clouded with mosquitos.

“Sunset and Rain” (pastel on textured board, 12 x 18 in.)

“By 1990 I started visiting Taos and Santa Fe and “discovered” the West. The climate and landscape made it attractive to work outdoors, and I was inspired by the plein air painting history of the area. It was especially exciting to meet other outdoor painters and eventually join groups and paint-outs.

“Desert Sketch” (pastel on emery paper, 7 x 9 in.)

“Now I’m not as active in going on painting trips or regular outings as I was during my 60s and early 70s. I’ve always enjoyed solitary painting, so the social aspect is not so important to me anymore. Occasional paint-outs and workshops provide plenty of camaraderie. Mostly painting close to home with a few artist residences to distant places provides plenty of inspiration.

“Despite my years of experience, I feel that I’m continuing to learn things about painting and working outdoors. In general, my process benefits from editing a scene before starting, and working quickly to distill the essence of a view.

“Approaching Rain at Ghost Ranch” (pastel on textured board, 16 x 20 in.)

“Pastels are heavy and fragile, but since there’s no color mixing, it’s hard to pare down the palette of colors necessary. I used to carry quite a big box of colors, but have gradually reduced the number and range I take on location. When I was younger, I also worked on larger pieces in the field, persevering until I finished the piece or returning a couple of days in a row at the same time of day in order to complete a painting. Today, I try to keep my sketches to around 12 x 16 inches, and don’t attempt a “finished” painting. Instead, I work to gather information, recording as much as I can in a couple of hours. My goal, apart from the enjoyment of working outdoors, is to set up enough of the scene to be able to work it up in a large painting in the studio. 

“Ghost Ranch Hills” (pastel, 9 x 12 in.)

“Fortunately, I’m in good health and don’t have many limitations as far as outdoor painting is concerned. Still, I can’t hike as far or carry as much stuff as I used to, so I often seek out good subjects closer to where I can park my car. And although I like to work standing up in the field, I carry my supplies in a trolley with wheels that also turns into a chair for times I need to sit down. For artists over 65, the best advice I can give is to try to stay healthy and strong so you can keep enjoying plein air painting for many years to come!”

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