A plein air painting of Misty Cliffs in the foreground, with blue skies, mountain and rocky beach behind it.

Day in the Life of a Plein Air Painter: Joanna Lee Miller

Joanna Lee Miller is a South African classically trained fine artist who is passionate about painting from life.  Following an eleven-year international corporate career in the US, UK and Singapore, Joanna joined  The Florence Academy of Art in Italy in 2017, to train as a professional artist.  The artist's technical training follows the traditional academic methods of the 19th Century European Ateliers, enabling her to heighten her contemporary oil paintings with a stroke of classical realism.

 

Go behind the scenes and share in Joanna's process of creating her plein air painting "Misty Cliffs at Daybreak" in this exclusive feature with the artist.


View more of Joanna's paintings for sale >>

 

Plein air painting in Misty Cliffs, Cape Town
To the beach, the initial scene and toes in the sand...

 

I’ve set my alarm for 5.15am, but I wake up a bit before that anyway. I’m excited! I checked the weather last night and I know the wind is calm (although there is never any guarantee). I have my routine down pat – I make two espresso Mocha pots on the stove (one to drink before leaving, one to have for when I’m needing a break later), I put toast in the toaster, and I transfer my unused paints from the freezer into a cooler box (these are the leftover paints from yesterday’s session that I keep cold so that they stay fresh).

It doesn’t take me long to pack the car – I have all my plein air painting gear organised from the night before, and I keep everything I need packed and ready to go at all times, just in case the conditions (and mood) are right and I feel inspired to paint, wherever I am.

On this early morning, I drive thirty minutes from home to Misty Cliffs beach, just before Scarborough, in Cape Town. It’s not yet light, but the sky is changing as I drive. I don’t feel any wind as I make my way over Ou Kaapse Weg – a good sign!

I pull over onto the side of the road, my usual spot right by the stairs that lead down to the beach. This is my third morning here. I’m working on a larger painting on canvas, that requires more than a one-day session. Plein air painting is all about the light, and as the light changes so rapidly, I only have two or three hours – at a maximum – to capture a light effect that is consistent enough to be believable, and accurate to the feeling I’m trying to capture:  for this painting, dawn on the beach.

 

Joanna Lee Miller painting plein air
A misty beach and smiles while painting.


However, coming back to the same spot to paint my chosen scene over several days means that the sun is moving in the sky, and being Cape Town, the conditions are never exactly the same, even on consecutive days. The changes I experience for this painting are more or less mist on the beach (this is Misty Cliffs, after all), bigger or smaller waves, lighter or darker sea, shadows shifting their position on the mountains, and the light creeping down onto the sand in different shapes and positions. I am amazed how quickly the effect has changed in just a few weeks. The first time I was here was the third week of March, and now it’s the second week of April.

Part of the joy – and challenge! – of plein air painting is knowing the effect I want to capture and sticking to it. However, sometimes a new effect reveals itself as the morning progresses (or as the time of year changes), and it can be even more enticing. So the name of the game is responsiveness, flexibility and adaptability, while still staying true to the course I’ve set…

The life of a Plein Air artist is, for me, about finding places of natural beauty that inspire me, that challenge me to be the best painter I can be, and that soothe my soul as I immerse myself in nature. Being a painter means that I can share my love for my natural environment with the world around me.

Plein Air painting is also about being prepared! A Plein Air painter cannot paint without all the needed supplies on hand, but not one supply too many, as I have to carry everything I need with me! (Other than what I can leave in my car boot – which is why I’m VERY grateful for my generous boot!)

 

Joanna Lee Miller's art studio
Studio prep

 

I have my portable easel, my palette, my oil paints, my brushes, my paper towel, my turpentine and linseed oil, my clamps to attach my wooden panel or canvas to the easel, and a bag with a 5 litre bottle of car oil in it, to weight my easel (this might be unique to me!). One of the earliest lessons I was taught when I was first introduced to plein air painting in Florence, Italy, was to weight your easel. You never know when a gust of wind will come out of nowhere and knock your easel over! It has happened to me many times – even with a weight! And it happened on my first day on this very beach…! More on that later.

Back to the essential materials for a plein air excursion… the panel or canvas itself. In one corner of my boot, I have a variety of sizes of wooden panels that I have prepared ahead of time. They are painted white, some with an additional layer of colour that I have previously painted thinly onto them (usually I like a warm brown or a light pink). I also have a variety of canvas panels of different sizes. This is because when I find an inspiring scene, I need options to choose from, so that I can capture the composition in the most appropriate format.

Any time I arrive at a new location, the first step is to find a scene I want to paint – a view that inspires me. I can have an immediate feeling that “this is the scene I love” but sometimes I need to walk around a bit to find the exact composition that draws me in. I have had times when I try and force the inspiration, but it usually means I struggle to find my flow as I’m painting, and I “fight” with the painting rather than flow with it.

 

Plein air painting on the beach
Painting in progress with sketch and scene.

 

This Misty Cliffs painting was one of those experiences where I walked down onto the beach, turned left, and said, this is it. I looked right, just to say I did, but I immediately set up my easel and wooden panel facing towards the south, with the sunlight slowly descending down the mountains from the left. The sea was a light turquoise, almost unbelievably green in some spots, and there was no mist! On the subsequent days since returning, there has been mist, but I have stayed true to the original morning without mist, as that is the view that grabbed me first.

And then it’s a powerfully focused one, two or – if I’m lucky – three hours of painting. I need to decide very quickly what aspects of the scene before me will change the fastest – like shadows moving as the sun rises. And at the same time, what part of this scene drew me in first? What must I capture as “true to life” as possible? With this Misty Cliffs painting, it was the bright morning light on the far mountains on the other side of Scarborough, with the sun lighting up the water and crests of the waves, while the Misty Cliffs beach was in shadow. It is that special time of the day when where you are is still in shadow, but the sun is moving quickly and it’s just a matter of time before you’re bathed in light.

As I was painting, the sun popped over the mountain and washed the far edge of the beach in bright light. I loved how it was just a few small tentacles of sun on an otherwise dark beach. At that moment I knew, that was the effect I wanted to capture.

 

Joanna Lee Miller painting plein air on the beach
Me busy painting...


The other element that can change – often without warning – is the wind! I was so focused on the experience of painting my sketch of the beach, I was caught off guard! I stepped back from my easel (that I had not weighted…!) to survey my painting from a distance (very important when painting from life – the painting needs to “work” from far away and you can find areas that are “not working” much easier when at a distance), and boom! Suddenly my easel with painting was face down on the sand! That was, unfortunately, the end of that painting session, but luckily, if you leave the painting to dry fully, the sand can be brushed off very easily.

Once I determined that the small “sketch” on wooden panel was a composition worthy of a larger canvas (even though unfinished due to it falling in the sand…), I’ve returned on multiple days at dawn to paint the larger painting. I did not want to lose the magic of painting from life – staying true to the spirit of painting en plein air. Being “in real life”, I’ve played around with different shapes of the light on the beach in comparison to the shadows as conditions change and as the sun moves in the sky… but I keep coming back to that first feeling – just a few tendrils of light on an otherwise shaded beach.

During a painting session, usually I don’t have time for a break of any kind. I have such a short period to capture so much information. The only break I might take is to have some coffee from my thermos. Sometimes I’ll eat some of my toast or a snack bar. But I don’t like to break for too long... Time is of the essence, and I feel an urgency throughout the painting session, until suddenly, I’ve reached a point where it no longer makes sense to continue. Either the light has changed too much, the wind has come up, or my painting has landed up in the sand (the most definitive end).

After a session painting – particularly an early morning painting session – I feel so invigorated. I have braved – and at times battled – the elements, been present for the most precious time of day (dawn, filled with hope and promise), and been immersed in beauty (often with my toes in the cool sand).

 

Joanna Lee Miller painting a beach landscapeplein air

Why plein air painting?
Debates about painting from life versus painting in one’s studio or from a photograph abound. For me, it is a deeply personal choice. I love being in nature. I love the experience of bracing the elements, perching myself on a rock, planting my feet in the sand, or tucking myself into a crevice. I love the feeling of being embraced and enveloped by my surroundings. For me, it is as much a part of the creation of the artwork as the paints and brushes I use. I also love the challenge and surprise of finding a view that calls out to me, and the intensity of that feeling. And the rush of trying to capture it as quickly as I can. There is also something deeply spiritual and philosophical for me, painting a scene before me from life. I know this moment will never occur again – it cannot. And the fact that I have been able to capture it, in that one moment that will never be repeated, is deeply meaningful and at the same time thrilling.


Even being born and raised in Cape Town, I am still continually amazed by how much natural beauty we have around us. My mother has told me that even as a child, I was aware of beauty, and I sought it out. After studying at university, I travelled and lived in many places overseas, pursuing a corporate career before I found my way to Florence, Italy, to study painting at the Florence Academy of Art. The training was technical and very intense – no theory, just practical drawing and painting every day for three years. I found these years some of the most meaningful, challenging and rewarding of my life.

The Florence Academy of Art does not focus on landscape painting, but I did have a teacher – Daniela Astone – who taught us plein air painting at her home in the Chianti hillside on some weekends. Under Daniela’s tutelage, and through another artist teacher and friend Ben Fenske, I discovered my passion for painting outdoors. I realised that I had found my perfect combination: being in nature, surrounded by beauty and pushing myself to my limits in terms of what I can create artistically in a limited period of time.

During my academic training, I did not expect that I would find my love and passion in landscape painting, and Plein Air landscape painting at that. Besides always having a love for the outdoors, I’m also realising it suits my personality. A close friend from art school said that some of our personality traits that seem to be a hinderance when we are in our classical training, can be our strength when we are outside of the school environment. I believe (hope!) this is the case for me – I was always impatient at school, wanting to know more than I did, before I had the chance to learn what was needed. That impatience brings with it speed, and this is a key trait for Plein Air painting.

I am surprised sometimes by my energy and excitement the night before a day out painting. But I see this is my true indication that I am indeed doing just the right thing for me.

Artist Joanna Miller with her plein air painting
The final painting

 

My Misty Cliffs painting took me five mornings to complete, from the first morning’s “sketch” and then the four mornings when I returned at daybreak with my large canvas, when conditions were as close to the first day as possible.

 

Misty Cliffs painting by Joanna Lee Miller showing a rocky beach and waves with light mist. Mountains in the distance with a few houses.
'Misty Cliffs at Daybreak' by Joanna Lee Miller.  Oil on canvas, 70 x 50cm.

 

 

Four paintings by Joanna Miller hanging on a white wall. The paintings all depict the ocean, with rocks and waves, painted en plein air.
Plein air paintings by Joanna Lee Miller on show at StateoftheART Gallery in Cape Town

 

 

View Joanna Lee Miller's paintings for sale>>>

 
 NEXT POST