21Country: Plein air painting with John C. Kelty

Watercolor artworks capture beauty of local scenery
Updated: Aug. 23, 2022 at 5:30 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - John Kelty paints beautiful local scenery, often feet away from his subject. And for eight of the twelve years he’s been a serious artist — his medium and style has been watercolor plein air painting. “Plein air painting… that’s a French term that means ‘in the open air’”, Kelty explained. “Basically, you’re on location when you paint. What most artists find daunting about that I think, is that they’re out in public. Anybody can come out and watch you.” And it’s very true — several people greeted Kelty as they passed by, one even stopping for conversation.

ABC21 spoke with Kelty as he painted a home in the West Central neighborhood. “I always do a value sketch first, just to get the lights and darks figured out,” he said. “Make your mistakes on your sketch before you start painting, because you really want to figure out your mistakes before you get any paint on your brush.” His best advice to those considering plein air, is to start in your backyard first. Equipment can be costly, and painting in public can be intimidating. He also recommends picking your favorite medium. “I’m doing watercolor today, which is based on layering,” Kelty shared. “It’s a little different than oil painting, where they go from dark to light. I go from light to dark. I’m putting in al the lightest tones first, and some fo them you’ll barely be able to see.”

The process starts slow, and moves quickly after the first layer dries. He begins on an angle, letting gravity pull the paint down the paper. For watercolors, Kelty says he usually does four layers — but his personal difficulty, is knowing when to quit. “One this size, would probably take about 45 minutes,” he told us. “If you go too much beyond that, and you tend to start fiddling… and nothing good comes of a watercolor if you start fiddling.”

“You lose your freshness, you lose your spontaneity — which is the best part of the medium,” he added. There are many ‘hardcore’ plein air painters, who weather extreme heat, cold, or other conditions for their scenes. But Kelty is not one of them. “It can be a lot of fun, especially on a beautiful 80-degree day like today,” he said. “But sometimes it’s not 80-degrees — sometimes it’s 90-degrees, and sometimes it’s below freezing. Those are days I stay inside.” Heat of course, mainly causes discomfort. But with watercolors, cold temperatures can wreak havoc on his work.

John C. Kelty painting in the West Central Neighborhood
John C. Kelty painting in the West Central Neighborhood(Daniel Beals)

His medium of choice, mostly unforgiving. “Basically what you’re doing is staining the paper with paint, so it’s kind of there,” he described. “Through experience and time, you do learn a lot of ways you can adjust, and basically salvage a painting if you do make a mistake.” He’ll be the first to admit, he’s still learning everyday. And he wants to remind those starting out, to remember it takes a lot of practice and discipline. “It took me years to learn how to do this, and do that. Don’t get discouraged right off-hand.”

As his work filled out, and colors began to settle in — his subject started to become impressively detailed. Kelty is active in the Fort Wayne Artists Guild, and their upcoming 6th Annual Kekionga Plein Air event. It’s an opportunity to get dozens of plein air artists throughout Allen County, publicly painting in various locations from August 24-27. “Art in its very basic, is such a solitary endeavor,” Kelty told us. “And it’s nice to have a tribe.” Over fifty artists are registered, and will compete for over $10,000 in awards. Here’s a list of events happening this week, from the guild’s website:

  • 08/24 8:00 am - 5:00 pm Check-in/ Canvas Stamping at Artlink, 300 E Main Street. Artists’ presentations /talks/demos by Greg Barnes and Vlad Yeliseyev. Nocturnal Paint-out on The Landing with live music and wet paint sale.
  • 08/25 8:00 am - 5:00 pm Check-in /Canvas Stamping at Artlink, Art in the Alley beginning at 816 Calhoun Street, pizza, live music, and wet paint sale. Quick Draw Competition - canvas stamping at 5:00, painting 5:30 - 7:00, awards immediately following judging.
  • 08/26 8:00 am - 5:00 pm Check-in/Canvas Stamping at Artlink, FWAG presents Kekionga Preview Exhibit and Sale at Park Foundation Pavilion, Promenade Park; public sale with refreshments and live music.
  • 08/27 8:00 am Check-in/Canvas Stamping during the day on the Plaza across from ArtLink, judging, awards, and wet paint sale, Paint the Cultural District competition, Community Artists Program Exhibition and Sale, Competition prizes and purchase awards at 5:00 pm. Taste of the Arts Festival.

Though you’ll have to pay for any artwork, watching the plein air artists at work is free. “The art scene in Fort Wayne has grown and has really blossomed in the last four or five years,” Kelty concluded. “It’s been something quite amazing to watch.” You can view more of Kelty’s work here.