Plein Air Embroidery

This past weekend my family and I embarked on an epic quest to Lebanon, Illinois to join in a plein air event. My former professor, Amy MacLennan, is a professor at McKendree University. Because I went to Hastings College where they encourage you to be besties with your professors, I like to keep in touch, visit and ask annoying questions about art and life. McKendree was hosting their 2nd annual plein air painting event. Amy invited me to come. Not having painted in, oh, eight years, I baulked. I asked what mediums you needed to work in and all it had to be was 2-D and not photography. You just had to be outside sweating your butt off and fighting off mosquitoes. Amy had this planned. She knew who she had invited. I came up with the cunning plan to embroider my canvas since embroidery is often called painting with thread.

I packed up the family and drove out to Illinois. Ian and Bea got to hang out in St. Louis at the City Museum while I executed my exercises in breaking down medium barriers.

Photos of the set up:

Super inspired by the weeds behind Amy's garage.

Learning a new stitch to emulate bushy grass end

My little table cloth and shade were very important. I spent a lot of time sitting bent over my embroidery sipping water. Actually I was kind of a woos. I would move my little table cloth around to stay in the shade so I had three locations. But I was inspired by all of them!

I also never left Amy's garden so that I could be close to the house to pee and get water. I partied a little too hard at the BBQ the night before and was massively hung over, sitting in the hot sun embroidering. The things we do for art!

The entire time I'm doing this I'm asking questions of the other painters about the purpose of plein air painting. I really wanted to understand if there was a place for fiber arts in the plein air world. Here are the questions and maybe some of the answers that I gathered and thought about.

  • Why plein air?
    • I asked this one a lot. But it seemed to me that despite the hot sun and the horrid bugs (I was sitting on the ground!) that you saw more while you were outside. You also heard more. I got to listen to all kinds of noises and wild life. The plants had more depth and light because they were outside. It really was a lovely experience and brought new textures and shadows to life. It taught me that there is a very specific way of layering your work so that you can incorporate the background into your embroidery piece. I still have some technique to develop.
  • Is embroidery the best idea for this?
    • Embroidery is so slow. Much slower than painting and in all honesty even the painters take all day to paint a 10" by 10" canvas. Part of drawing and painting from life is that you spend most of your time looking at your subject. In embroidery, I spend most of my time looking at my stitches and I have too. Letting your brain guide your needle is going to get you pricked and your clothes sewed into your project. (Though this is an interesting experiment for the future. Much Thinking.) I still don't have a definite yes or no to this question. I just know that embroidery makes the best sense for me.
  • Am I really doing plein air if I'm not embroidering exactly what I see?
    • My answer and the answer of some others to this is yes. Because I'm still outside which is what plein air means. Do not be fooled by all the lovely paintings that look just like the town of Lebanon, my embroidery collage thing is just as inspired. I suffered just as much from those infernal mosquitoes despite all the bug spray. There are lots of shapes the mimic the fences and vines that I saw. That seemed to be my theme for the day. I also asked this question because I had to pre select all my materials for this adventure.  There was a lot of thought put into what I should bring. You don't just get to mix the colors of your threads on the spot. I chose the fabrics and threads that were really calling to me in the studio and those happened to look like a chain link fence. Thus I immediately started looking for good fences when I hit Lebanon. Isn't this how painters do it to a certain extent? They decide they want to do a field instead of a house?

These are some of my thoughts. I'm looking forward to trying this next year. I even think I've inspired a weaver to try some plein air weaving from discarded materials in the area. So many fun things to experience.

Me, Bea and Amy

"Amy's Backyard" Luckily we could just hang it on the wall of the gallery.

Meghan's Plein Air Embroidery Tips

  • Hydrate! Hat, Water bottle, Sunscreen, Bug Spray, Pants that you can sit in
  • Water resistant table cloth to sit on
  • The smaller the hoop the better. Classic beginners plein air mistake is to do one giant canvas. You'll regret trying hard just to make a composition and not focus on the stitches
  • Variety of threads - The hot pink thread is construction string!
  • Bags that are easy to tote - not too much weight, you might be walking far.