Howard Butterworth painting ‘en plein air’


‘En plein air’ is a French term used to describe artists who paint outdoors; capturing the colour, movement, light and natural feel of their subject. Painting outdoors became popular in the mid to late 1800’s  and the transition in popularity from studio to the great outdoors became possible due to several inventions. These would have great influence on the art world, ultimately marking the beginning of the Impressionist movement. These inventions are still used today; the box easel (allowing an artist to carry all he or she might need in a handy case with extendable legs), the introduction of tubes of paints (rather than having to mix the pigment and oils within a studio) and also canvas panels.


Howard Butterworth has been painting outdoors and particularly Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire since the late 1970’s. He is passionate about this element of his work and believes it helps him to capture a particular scene just how it should be, full of movement, light and as naturally as possible. Howard has the deepest respect for many Impressionist painters who advocated this method, not least are Renoir, Monet, Manet, Constable and Sisley.

'The Magpie' by Claude Monet 1869

‘The Magpie’ by Claude Monet 1869

Painting outdoors can be problematic and mindful; while an artist works on a painting, they convey onto the canvas their own intense artistic expression; therefore the artist has created a 3D experience on a flat canvas encapsulating that moment in time for the viewer it gives that painting a presence. The viewer is able to see even through the paintings stillness on the canvas, the story, the movement, an exposed piece of the artists soul and through the artist’s eyes, embrace that one stolen moment in time…this creates a presence. Howard’s paintings hold that presence, for all to see and admire and “Source of Inspiration Loch Muick” is a wonderful example.

'Source of Inspiration Loch Muick' by Howard Butterworth

‘Source of Inspiration Loch Muick’ by Howard Butterworth

When you look at the canvas for the first time you see a scene of a warm summers day; but you feel the gentle breeze passing across the Loch, whispering through the birch trees, the clouds appear to be moving delicately across the sky, reflected in the Loch below. We can imagine the gentle hum of the insects in the background and the sound of summer bird song. We see the path opening up before us, beckoning us forward through the beauty and warmth of the pink heather and beyond to the waterfall and up onto the mountaintop. We feel tranquil, peaceful and perhaps memories past have been jolted from within. The painting is an opportunity to be truly mindful and Howard has captured that moment for us with his presence, with every colour choice, brush stroke he has given us that experience – what a joy, truly an inspiration and such a gift.

As an artist, part of the job description is indeed to convey that presence and that is ultimately what makes an artist successful. This presence may follow different styles and genres, however the artist must create a relationship between themselves and the viewer, a connection. This relationship is where two, minds, hearts and souls meet. Art is a very individual experience and what holds presence for one viewer may not for another. In some respect this cannot be explained, that’s just the way it is!

Capturing presence is not that easy and often takes demanding acts of physical and mental endurance for an artist to achieve… Painting in November on a fine cold winters day; Howard parked his car just off the North Deeside Road near Kincardine O’Neil. He arrived early at that spot, “to get the light effect on the river”, as it “is quite special”, however, “the thing you can’t see from the picture (Silver Dawn), is that it is a considerable way down to this pool from the road, where I had parked my car. So my nickname for this is ‘heart attack corner’, because I was up and down, up and down (from the bank to the car), because I kept forgetting paints, palettes, rolls of tissue and I was really quite exhausted!”

'Silverdawn' by Howard Butterworth

‘Silverdawn’ by Howard Butterworth

The harsh weather in Scotland can also battle against a ‘plein air’ artist like Howard, especially when he paints in the depth of winter. Early on in his career and many times since he has painted ‘The Auld Brig’ at Invercauld, he has a great fondness for the bridge and the surrounding views, believing it depicts the area of Deeside perfectly; “it’s got Lochnager in it, it’s got the history (of the bridge) and it’s got more or less all the important Flora … occasionally it gets deer” Howard’s painting ‘The Auld Brig O’Dee’ at Invercauld was painted on a day when he endured these harsh conditions”…it was so cold, the carpet (at Croft Cottage) was frozen 18 inches behind the front door. There was snow on the ground and after a gruelling day being battered by the weather in freezing conditions, I only just managed to get my car started, to get home…” The Auld Brig O’Dee is unsurprisingly one of Howard’s most popular images and is available as an unlimited print.

Winter time Brig O' Dee - photograph of work in progress.

Winter time Brig O’ Dee – photograph of work in progress.

‘Reluctant Spring’ is another painting completed from that viewpoint and was painted towards the end of March; Howard tells me that, “…I was told off for being so stupid as to stand out in the cold by a couple of passers by, which was hilarious, because it was only a matter of a day since I had been told off in Spain for standing out in the sun”, the joys of painting outdoors!

'Reluctant Spring' by Howard Butterworth

‘Reluctant Spring’ by Howard Butterworth

Howard has experienced lots of colourful characters, people and animals while painting outdoors; he has many stories to tell from his beloved Deeside, to Edinburgh and Europe. Not least is his experience while painting on Princess Street in Edinburgh. A beggar appraised his art, he was accused of being Dom Joly (Trigger Happy TV) and a well-dressed lady who was convinced she knew a “little old man that lived in a cave under the castle” kept Howard company for more than two hours!

'Street - Life' Princess Street by Howard Butterworth

‘Street – Life’ Princess Street by Howard Butterworth

Ultimately whether Howard is painting in the city of Aberdeen or Edinburgh, in the glens of Scotland, on the banks of the River Dee or on the sunny shores of Spain he believes that, “…doing it (painting) in that place is the reason why it seems right…you get the feel of the place, that’s what it’s all about…” that’s why he paints plein air and that’s why his paintings have presence!

written by H.J.K with quotes and stories by Howard

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