by Shauna Grissett, photos by Candra George
THE VERY DEFINITION of plein air paintingis leaving the four walls of one’s studio and experiencing painting and drawing in the landscape. The practice goes back for centuries but was made into an art form by the French Impressionists. Their desire to paint light and its ever-changing ephemeral qualities, coupled with the creation of transportable paint tubes and the box easel, the precursor to the plein air easels of today, allowed artists the freedom to paint “en plein air”—the French expression for “in open air.” Artists have long painted outdoors but, in the mid-19th century, working in natural light became particularly important not only to the Impressionists, but to the Barbizon and Hudson River Schools, as well.
Mandeville artist Peg Usner concentrates on plein air painting, and she creates art in the natural landscape. In particular, she adores the geography of Southeast Louisiana and the Deep South and depicts the beauty and bounty of their landscapes and architecture. The moss hanging from oaks along a lazy bayou, a bright summer sun on graceful façades or an egret in the shallows of Lake Pontchartrain— each inspire her impressionistic style.
Usner’s love of nature was innate, and she began painting at age 11. She says, “When I was little, I always loved being outside, planting sweet peas and lima beans. My mother never had to tell me to go outside.”
The artist received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Design from Louisiana Tech and her Master of Arts in History from the University of New Orleans. Usner is an accredited professional member of the American Society of Interior Designers and worked first as an interior designer for various firms in and around New Orleans and then as a professor of interior design at Delgado College for 23 years. Usner headed the Interior Design Department at Delgado and started the ASID student chapter, all while continuing to work as an interior designer. Explaining her professional trajectory, she says, “In terms of a career, I always knew that it was going to be something in art. And, I thought if I was an interior designer, I could make a living in it. In all of the arts, whether it’s design, painting, commercial art or architecture, you use the same basic set of tools: line, shape, form, texture and color to create harmony and balance. It’s the same concept—just in a different medium.”
Born and raised in New Orleans, Usner says, “I’m a New Orleans girl; you can’t take that away from me! But I’ve lived in Mandeville since 1991, and I’m very civic-minded. I completed Master Gardener training in 2000, and I’ve been a board member of Keep Mandeville Beautiful for 18 years.”
Usner acknowledges artist Phil Sandusky as her mentor in plein air painting. “In 2001, I retired after 23 years of teaching and then began concentrating on painting. It wasn’t until 2010 or 2011 that I really started to paint in earnest, outside. And then I took a workshop with Phil Sandusky, and I said, ‘this is it.’ I knew that plein air painting would probably be what I’d do for the rest of my life.”
The notion of plein air painting may sound romantic, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Usner explains, “You have the heat of Southeast Louisiana, the humidity, the bugs, the possible rainstorm in the middle of the day— there are just so many factors that you have to deal with. But I still like being outside because it’s just so different from painting in the studio. So, I generally paint in the mornings. I try to get outside by 8:30, especially in the summer. By noon, when the sun is at its highest point, the shadows have moved; everything has changed and looks completely different. That’s the reason I like to paint in one sitting—I know the scene, the landscape, is going to change. Sure, you can come back the next day, and I oftentimes do, but you can’t count on it to look the same.”
Usner has been the Artist in Residence at Longue Vue House and Gardens in New Orleans since 2015 (2015 – present). “There is always something to paint out there,” she explains. “The flowers, plants and trees are constantly changing. What I like to capture is that one moment in time, in that particular place, with that particular light—it’s like history. I am catching a real moment in time.”
At Longue Vue, Usner teaches painting, giving workshops, “Part of my position as Artist in Residence is teaching.” Usner explains her own process and well as how she teaches her students, “The most important thing is to find the composition, that’s how I start. I sketch directly on the
canvas, then, I put my darkest areas first down—most of the time—and work up to the lightest areas. It’s not always that cut and dry and I don’t always follow this process to the letter—but I try to give them a good foundation. Then, I’ll work all around the canvas. I start out very thin with the medium, usually oil. I painted with acrylics for years but, I really like the look and consistency of oils.”
Loving all nature as she does, when asked if she has a favorite painting spot, Usner is hard put to come up with an answer. However, City Park holds a special place in
her heart. “It’s a place that just hits me. My master’s thesis was on the founding of the parks, both Audubon and City parks, but I’m mostly interested in painting City Park. I love the water and how the light reflects on the water. Everybody thinks that water is blue because it reflects the sky. But, oh, there are so many colors, and there’s so much depth of color in water! And if the wind blows, suddenly you’ve got ripples that you didn’t have a minute ago, and everything changes. I love the fact that it’s so elusive like that! If I had to pick only one subject to paint, I think it would be City Park.”
In addition to her beloved Southeast Louisiana, Usner also paints in western North Carolina, where she visits several times a year. She creates evocative scenes of the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
If tempted with the right project, occasionally Usner will stay inside her studio. Recently, she illustrated a book of poetry by David Campbell, Nature All Around Us. Explains Usner, “I went to this bed and breakfast in Little River Bluffs Nature Preserve for years, and the owner asked me to illustrate his book. Essentially, the illustrations are interpretations of his poems, and they aren’t all about landscapes.”
Usner has clearly found her life’s passion—plein air painting—and says, “This is who I am. I’m an artist, and I paint. I paint what appeals to me, what catches my eye, what moves me. And I hope it will move someone else to enjoy that moment in time, that place.”
For more information on Peg Usner’s work, call (985) 624-8557 or visit Facebook: Peg Usner, or pegusner.com.