A fixture of local art shows and exhibits, Shawn Cornell is a plein air painter in the strictest terms: All his paintings are completed 100 percent outdoors. He’s a founding member of Missouri Plein Air Painters’ Association (MOPAPA), and serves as the group’s organizational manager. He also conducts art workshops with his father, artist David Cornell. “We used to go fishing together, now we paint together,” he quips. The artist recently told LN all about the plein air movement.
LN: What’s MOPAPA all about?
SC: It’s a very loose-knit group of painters who enjoy the camaraderie of their fellow artists. We have an outing every Sunday, usually within a 50-mile radius of St. Louis, and anybody who wants to come out and try it, or learn, can join us.
LN: Define painting en plein air.
SC: It’s creating an image from start to finish outdoors. If you see snow in the painting, it means that the artist was standing in snow. If you see rain in the painting, it means that the artist was getting very wet. There are some artists who consider their work ‘plein air’ if it’s done 75 percent outdoors and 25 percent in studio. But I believe that in order for a painting to be truly en plein air, it must be completed entirely on location.
LN: What’s so great about painting en plein air?
SC: When I’m outdoors painting, I’m experiencing it: the wind in my face, the smell of flowers, the buzz of a bee, the light bouncing off a twig. You really begin to see the extraordinary and the ordinary. It’s a whole new experience you can’t get from a studio or photograph. When snow has piled up on your palette, it’s almost as if you’ve received a badge. To me, the sense of accomplishment wouldn’t be as great in a controlled environment.
LN: What’s not so great about it?
SC: There are plenty of distractions: the elements, bugs, and those mosquitoes! Just trying to stay focused is a challenge. There’s so much beauty out there, and you’re trying to crop it down to just one section.
LN: Do you like people to watch you paint or start a conversion while you work?
SC: Sometimes beginner artists are nervous about people watching them; I’ve told them, Don’t worry, people aren’t here to criticize you. I remember when I started painting at the Missouri Botanical Garden. I was painting the roses when a family walked by. I casually told them, It’s at a very ugly stage right now, and the Dad told me, Yes, it is! I had to laugh about it. Over time, you just learn to roll with those types of things and not be self-conscious. You’re almost a performing artist, you’re on display. There are some painters who’d rather not be approached. They usually give little signals, like holding up a finger. But personally, I find it unusual when people walk by without even looking.
LN: How do spectators affect your work?
SC: It affects my focus, and definitely slows down the process. It’s usually the little ones who drag their parents over. But I enjoy it. I find myself giving impromptu lessons to the kids: If I mix this color with that color, look what happens. You just don’t know how it’s going to affect those kids down the road. It could be the thing that enhances their appreciation of art.
LN: Where do you like to paint?
SC: Forest Park is tremendous, all the bridges, especially since Forest Park Forever began its campaign. It’s like getting away from the city without really getting away. Other favorite spots are Shaw Nature Reserve and Castlewood State Park in Ballwin, where you have Kiefer Creek, the bluffs and the Meramec River. Each of them takes a different form during the four seasons. I never tire of them.
LN: What’s your dream destination to paint?
SC: I’d love to go to Arizona, with those arid areas, cactus, and dried streams. I look forward to painting reds, browns and big sky, as opposed to tons and tons of greens.
LN: What’s your favorite painting?
SC: One I did during winter in Forest Park, across the street from the skating rink. There’s a little meandering stream across some rocks, and there’s a little footbridge on the base of it. I did a close-up of the rocks with water flowing. It’s very subtle, the mixing of the warm and cool tones. Another favorite just sold in Vail, Colo.; it was done at Shaw Nature and it’s of prairie grass and wildflowers just below the Bascom House. It’s amazing there in October; there’s just a little green left, a few colors, but most everything has turned into browns and grays, very beautiful tones!