Lily Prince: Honing Plein Air

Lily Prince makes lush plein air paintings depicting the essence of specific places around the world. By utilizing linear and color vocabularies, she creates pictorial fields which resemble disorienting topographical maps where time is fluid and frozen simultaneously. Lily shares her background, ideas, process, and projects.

Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to plein air painting.

Just before going to Bard for my MFA, I began painting at a park near my apartment, mostly out of curiosity. It felt like a challenge; it made me nervous. My first painting professor at RISD, Dean Richardson, said to always be nervous when you’re painting and drawing, like you have a plane to catch in a few minutes. So that’s how I knew it was right. And I fell in love with being able to make work while being out in nature. It was a gift to spend time outside and also feel I was accomplishing something. That sense of it being a challenge has never left me. Every new landscape I approach to draw from feels like an almost insurmountable challenge.

So when I got to Bard, I continued with plein air work, but only painting rather than drawing. I would return daily to the waterfall in the woods on campus, dragging very large canvases that I’d thrown in the back of my 1971 Oldsmobile station wagon, and paint in oils. Bugs love the smell, so I spent a lot of time picking dead ones out of the paint when I returned to the studio at the end of each day. I loved being in the woods at the edge of that waterfall.

During my time at Bard, I went to live for a few months each in both northern and southern California. That is when I began plein air drawing, doing at least one oil pastel drawing a day, mostly black-and-white, for six months. I learned so much about how landscape space is made up of forms of light and dark. Just shapes of light and dark that fit together like a puzzle and change in scale. That was one of the most educational experiences I ever had.

Arles, 2, acrylic on canvas paper, 16” x 16”, 2019.

In your statement, you argue that beauty is the greatest form of protest. It’s an intriguing twist. Can you talk more about how you see the relationship between beauty and protest today?

Obviously, there are many forms of protest and these days we need them all. They certainly are not mutually exclusive. Organizing masses of people to demand change is imperative, crucial to our survival, but so is choosing thoughtfully how to live one’s life and making choices that consciously reflect one’s beliefs. Being vegetarian for 38 years is one way I feel I can effect change on a personal level. So is choosing to purchase organic food for decades and now seeing so many major food companies make and offer organic products. Using individual consumer power, which is a form of protest, is so important for change.

I define beauty as a vast term that encompasses consciousness, the pursuit of the making of things that have meaning, the discovery of solutions to problems, personal expression, and the seeking of knowledge. I’m not referring to just the classical sense of beauty. It is more about a sense of devotion to something greater than oneself (not as in organized religion, but rather spirituality: the connection to something greater than oneself and one’s self interests). Something that benefits humanity, nature, all species, the planet. Sounds a bit grand and hyperbolic, perhaps! But I think that the pursuit of beauty, defined as such, is these days a tremendous act of protest.

Scientists and artists who devote their time to being out in nature to record or reflect upon and bring attention to what is most important to our survival – nature – are engaged in an act of real protest. So much of the world has ignored the importance of this for too long and now we see where that has led us. It isn’t the easiest thing to be out in the landscape in difficult weather or uncomfortable surroundings struggling to capture and declare some element of the elements as vital. It certainly isn’t heroic, but I do see it as an act of protest.

Lago di Como, 37, acrylic on canvas, 36” x 36”, 2019.

Your work takes you to places with diverse landscapes, like New York’s Hudson Valley, Italy, France. How do you choose where to paint and how does your approach to painting “Lago di Como” differ from painting “Arles” for example?

I choose where to plein air work based on some practical considerations, such as where I might be invited to be an artist-in-residence, or where I might want to explore, or where I might be able to plunk myself down and live for a time. Certain landscapes, although I might find stunningly beautiful and inspiring – such as many beach locations, or the woods deep in the mountains – just don’t have what I’m looking for artistically, such as deep space with varied patterns of fertile growth and ample sky. A place must also have what I connect with spiritually and sometimes I have to search that out.

I tend to respond most to certain very cultivated landscapes, land that has been cultivated for centuries like in Europe and has an ordered chaos. But also the rock formations and cacti forms in the southwest U.S. and distant mountains with water in the middle ground in parts of the northwest. The corn fields with hay bales in the Hudson Valley are always with me and enter into my work. So there is a simultaneity; it is never really just one place I’m working from. I carry within me all the places I’ve been most affected by. But give me a view with deep space, fertile fields with a fecundity of random forms and patterns, and distant, echoing mountains and I am ready to get to work.

Lago di Como, 39, acrylic on canvas, 36” x 36”, 2019.
Lago di Como, 40, acrylic on canvas, 36” x 36”, 2019.

Can you share one plein air painting experience that you consider formative?

Painting in the woods at the Bard College waterfall every day for 9 weeks during graduate school was truly formative. It was the first time I ever had that kind of continuity, of returning to the same place for 2 months and really exploring a place in depth. It was also my first time working large on site, as well as having fantastic support from mentors.

But more recently, returning to Italy seven years ago on an artist residency, was truly transformative. I had lived on and off for various periods in Italy beginning with my year at RISD in Rome. Returning there had so much sensory intensity for me. And it coincided with my return to plein air, which I had left for many years but always longed to return to. Drawing from the same spectacular view every day at the end of a small street in a tiny Tuscan town overlooking the Crete Senesi landscape was magical. My work is still inspired by those twisting, undulating hills, and the ordered chaos of the distant fields and silhouettes of cypress trees receding in space and dotting distant hills. I carry that with me.

American Beauty, 2, oil pastel on 300 lb. Fabriano paper, 30” x 33”, 2019

What are you working on now?

I am working on a project called “American Beauty” that is attempting to remind us all about how much beauty still exists in our country. We really need that now. I began a series of small black-and-white and large color plein air drawings on a recent trip to the southwest and northwest. During these times of environmental and societal devastation, it can seem almost impossible to remember how much untouched land and inspiring landscape there is out there/here. It is astounding how much undisturbed nature abounds in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington, just to name the places I travelled to this summer.

So I set out on this road trip in August to draw from places of particular interest to me. I tried to avoid drawing in direct sun during the most intense heat of the day, which often was over 100 degrees, but I wasn’t always able to avoid it. It was extremely intense. Sometimes I drew from the back of a rented mini-van, on the side of a highway if there happened to be a view I wanted, so at least I could sit and have the raised back provide some shade. It was hot as hell and definitely a labor of love.

In the past, I’d never made plein air drawings larger than 14” x 15”. That way I could manage standing up to draw while holding the pad in one hand and drawing with the other. And that size allowed me to easily fit the work in a carry-on suitcase. But on this western trip I worked on 30” x 35” 300 lb paper and leaned on large cardboard sheets. Doing that really seemed a bit insane on the side of highways – it was a challenge for sure–but now I’m so glad I have those works to finish up back in my studio and use as composite inspiration for paintings I’m about to begin.

American Beauty, Sonoran Desert, oil pastel on 300 lb. paper, 30” x 33”, 2019.

(Top image: Arles, 1, acrylic on canvas paper, 16” x 16”, 2019. Unless indicated otherwise, all photos courtesy of the artist.)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on December 2, 2019 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.


Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing, and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She has exhibited her immersive installations in museums and galleries, nationally and internationally. Yaniv founded the platform Art Spiel to highlight the work of contemporary artists through art reviews, studio visits, and interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. Yaniv holds a BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from SUNY Purchase.

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