If you think painting outdoors is only a matter of bringing canvas, brush and paint out where the sun shines, you’re easily mistaken. For Erwin Mallari, it has its own demands and realities: the sun deciding to hide behind a cloud and changing your light, a human figure upping and leaving and disrupting your composition, and then there’s the occasional audience distraction.
Mallari, 40, has long been a fan of the outdoors. He started dreaming about painting en plein air when he was in college at the University of the East in Caloocan, but he knew he needed to improve his skills for the challenge. So he started spending more time in “studio work”—basically being really good at painting at home—before he gained the confidence to conquer the outdoor terrain.
“Masaya kasi sa labas. Gusto ko yung mga pagsubok,” says the artist. There’s the challenge of limited time, he says. The sudden shifting of light—“kapag umusad ang araw ay uusad din ang mga anino sa paligid at ganon din kapag natakpan ng ulap ang araw.”
There’s the heat and pollution, and other unpredictable inconveniences. “Minsan biglang may magpa-park [ng sasakyan] sa harapan mo...or may magpapagawa ng portrait, at mga guard na paaalisin ka.”
To hear him say it, painting outdoors is a discipline in itself. You need the technique and skill to engage a dynamic environment. You need to learn focus and speed without sacrificing the pleasures of doing something you love. It comes with its own rules, as well as its own rituals. Before Mallari steps out for a day of work, he makes sure he has what he needs. “Kumpleto dapat ang art materials gaya ng papel na nakakabit sa board, tripod na ginawang easel, watercolor, favorite brushes outdoor, tumbler at tubig.” He brings his camera to document his process, some extra cash, and bike implements.
One might consider the bicycle as one of the tools of his trade—it’s how Mallari discovers sceneries for his work. It also serves as his mobile studio. He has two, in fact: a folding bike and one that he put together himself. The folding bike is compact and easy to lug around even in buses. Great for traveling to far destinations. The only thing is it can only carry so much, hence the need to assemble another bike, bigger this time and can accommodate more stuff. “Madalas akong mag-bike sa Bulacan at Metro Manila pero paminsan-minsan ay nalalayo rin,” says the artist. He and his two-wheelers have been to Norzagaray; Montalban; Dingalan, Aurora; Kinabuyahan, Quezon; Jomalig Island; Bataan; and Batangas.
Most of Mallari’s works depict either street vignettes or riverside views. For someone who grew up and continues to live in Malabon, the artist still seeks the water wherever he goes. Google his name and out will pour images of lakes, boats, ports, beaches and children frolicking in them. Living near the sea has not only influenced Mallari’s work but his disposition. “Naniniwala ako na malakas ang impluwensya ng napapaligiran ka ng tubig,” he says. “Naging playground kasi namin ang baha nung kabataan namin kaya kapag nakakakita ako ng tubig ay may masaya akong ala-ala.”
Mallari’s chosen medium is watercolor. There was a time when he was also doing oil but watercolor is his “first love.” It’s lightness is attuned to the en plein air universe. “Madali siyang dalhin sa mga byahe, madaling ihanda kung gagamitin, at madali ding iligpit dahil water soluble ang pintura nya,” the artist shares. “Kahit matuyuan ng pintura sa brush at paleta ay hindi nito ikasisira.”
While there are the unnecessary distractions that painting outdoors pose, the joys seem to outweigh the unpleasant intrusions. “Gusto kong nagpipinta sa labas dahil may mga kakwentuhan akong tao, madami silang istoryang masarap pakinggan na base sa lugar na aking pinipinta.” It can be a Mabini old timer who will tell him stories of the art scene of decades back, or just everyday hangers on who say things like, “Brader, pwede mo bang isama yung kumpare ko kunwari nakasakay sya sa bangka nya?” To which Mallari will say, “Oo naman, kahit naka hubo pa!”
The exchanges provide necessary amusement for the artist, but also offer bits of information about his setting. These enrich not only the painting itself but the whole experience of making art en plein air. Sometimes a person who unknowingly made it to one of his paintings show up and introduce himself. Like a kid in Navotas who recognized his image in an exhibit catalogue Mallari brought with him one day. “Nakilala nya ang sarili nya at mga kalaro nito kahit sila'y nakatagilid sa aking composition.”
Mallari says he tries as much to finish a painting before the realities of losing light and heading home set in. But it’s not always easy one-upping nature. “May mga experience ako kagaya sa Norzagaray na inabot ako ng malakas na ulan at hindi ko nasundutan ng detalye ang pinipinta ko kaya itinuloy ko na lamang ito sa bahay,” he recalls. “May nangyari naman sa Bulacan na hindi ko din natapos dahil inabot ako ng matinding sikat ng araw. Binalikan ko na lang kinabukasan ng mas maaga.”
But there’s a different feeling to completing a work on the very spot he started it. ”Rewarding para sa akin ang mga bagay na yun bilang isang pintor: yung tipong kaya mong ipinta ang isang eksena na walang tulong ng anumang gadget kundi yung actual kang nakaharap sa kapaligiran.”
Acknowledging he’s still far from being a master, Mallari wants to continue practicing the discipline and essence of en plein air painting. Never mind the security guards who shoo him away, or people asking if they could sit for a charcoal portrait, or the occasional hassle of accidentally leaving one of his materials behind. “Andun yung thrill na kapag nalampasan mo ang mga yon at nakabuo ka ng isang pyesa, ang sarap sa pakiramdam uuwi ka na may nakilalang tao, may pabaon na istorya,” Mallari once wrote on his Facebook page. “Na-practice yung pulso mo na pumirmi sa kabila ng may nanonood, nakapag-share ka sa mga interesado ng kapirasong kaalaman mo sa pagpipinta.”
This is why he thinks painting outdoors is far from painting in a controlled environment: not only because the former puts your mastery of the medium to the test, it’s the world actively engaging in your art-making—“yung mas nararamdaman mo ang eksena kaysa sa nakikita mo ang detalye.” So much of art appreciation seem to rest solely on that material end result —a painting, a sculpture, its message, its value—but Mallari reminds us the experience of making art can be an end in itself. A totally satisfying one.
Erwin Mallari has an ongoing exhibit with Toti Cerda called Paghilom at Galerie Anna, 4th floor SM Megamall Building A.