Go Deeper Independent Artist Spotlight: Derek Ayres' Plein Air Guitar

Independent Artist Spotlight: Derek Ayres’ Plein Air Guitar

Posted September 11th, 2021

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“That freedom that comes from, you know, driving around in the back of a muscle car, turning up Van Halen for the first time” says Derek Ayres about Plein Air Guitar, his gallery project of 20 watercolor paintings that capture the spirit of nostalgia and the desire for youth’s freedom. 


Reentering the art scene after a brief hiatus, Derek Ayres is making his break in the Philadelphia Art scene with his gallery show, Plein Air Guitar, showing as part of the 2021 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Coming from a background in sculpting himself, Ayres puts himself on the line both technically and emotionally, as he explores the medium of plein air watercolor to create paintings influenced by his own youth and pop culture memories. “Like I said I’m a sculptor, so of course it makes sense that I started making small, fake, plein air watercolors” jokes Ayres. Plein air is a technique of painting coming from the French phrase en plein air, meaning in open air. It is the practice of painting outdoors, capturing the subject in real time. However, beginning this project in the pandemic and thus being inspired by such, Ayres subverts the tradition of plein air by doing all of the paintings out of his basement studio. “I thought it would be kinda funny, and subversive, and fun to make a series of fake landscape paintings, meaning I painted them all in my basement, following along Youtube videos”. 

Ayre’s basement studio setup.

A trained artist and accomplished sculptor, Ayres had been exposed to various drawing classes throughout his studies, but was new to the world of watercolors. He found inspiration to teach himself landscape painting from watching the England-based street artist Banksy’s documentary; Exit Through the Gift Shop. The artist’s painting “The Banality of the Banality of Evil” became Ayer’s inspiration for Plein Air Guitar, as he found the contrast between the object of the painting, a Nazi soldier, and the background, a serene lake scene, to be intriguing. “There was this jarring juxtaposition between the object and the landscape, and I thought that was really powerful. That was my departure point. And then to bring in the subversion point, you know, I’m not a trained painter, so I thought it’d be really wild and just fun to be like, okay, these bucolic landscapes, what am I gonna do? So I did what every shut in does, they get on the computer! So I just started looking up watercolor techniques”. From there Ayres began to teach himself how to paint watercolor landscapes, with the help of Youtube tutorial makers. “It’s sort of the English version of Bob Ross, these really happy accidents and the whole bit, and it’s a ton of fun!”. 


At the start of the pandemic, Ayres began to keep a journal, doing small line-art sketches with word associations that he would post to Instagram every day. As time went on and he continued these drawings, he explains that amps and guitars began to stand out prominent objects that he kept returning to. “At some point the words just dropped away because for me they kind of spoke for themselves. And then it became an issue of, oh now what?”. Ayres has always been connected to music, having played drums in various bands in his youth and, within the past decade, learning how to play the guitar. The pandemic brought about a time for Ayres to reconnect with all of these old passions, therefore spurring the inspiration to mix music with art to create Plein Air Guitar. 

Ayre’s painting “Gone”, part of Plein Air Guitar.

The pieces themselves, twenty in total, depict beautiful, washy watercolor landscapes with stark, line art guitar amps either imposing on or meshing with the scene. Some are humorous, others a bit sad, and all of them carry an air of nostalgia, full of pop culture and media references that Derek reflects on throughout.  “There is this aspect of musical instruments that, they have a presence outside of what they’re used for. I think those things are signifiers for the freedom you had when you were, like, when the only thing that really mattered was the music you listened to… the roller skating rink that you went to, what was coming over the sound system. Or your cousin’s dodge charger with the stereo that he just put in… or cassette tapes going into this cassette deck while you’re going down to the beach. These are all things that I feel intrinsically, when I’m painting these things. And I think for a lot of people, the objects are signifiers for their youth, and the freedom- maybe a lost freedom- that they feel”. Ayres explains that while the paintings carry layered meanings for him personally, he also works to keep them ambiguous, allowing for every viewer to interpret the works in their own way. The effect is a gallery of paintings rich with references and nostalgia, but universally applicable to all viewers.


“Yeah I know that car! I think I know that actress! I definitely know that rockstar. I think we kind of build these relationships up in our mind to some extent, what we’re familiar with… Someone was asking me, ‘So why doesn’t new music sound as good as the old music?’. It’s not necessarily because the music’s any better, it’s just that you’ve listened to it so many times. That’s what you’re familiar with. It signifies all of this good, or bad, or whatever, but these familiar memories that you associate with those images, whether its either eating popcorn with your old man on the couch watching some old movie, or if like again, taking a ride in a Mustang for the first time, or the first time you went to guitar center and had the balls to take a guitar off the wall and sit down and try to play ‘Free Bird’ and annoy the shop clerk or something. I think there’s a certain comfort in things that you do know. So I think I have a, definitely a nostalgia, but I also like to play around with it… I think everybody’s looking for safety a lot of the time, and there’s safety and familiarity with these nostalgic people, places, things”.

A look into Ayre’s process, taken in his basement studio.

Derek Ayres’ paintings in Plein Air Guitar not only reflect on the sentimentality of youth, but also on the art itself. The entirely DIY process of learning how to paint with watercolor and coordinating the execution of the gallery is showcased in the work, as Ayres explains that each piece shows the struggles that went into this process. “What is it that Dolly Parton said? ‘Takes a lot of money to look this cheap’”, he jokes, “I think people are hungry for authenticity… I think the paintings are funny, I think some of them are sad, you know, I hope people can see the humanity in them, and you know they’re not perfect! There’s some struggle in there. They’re not sewn up, they’re not technical, but they’re not tossed off”. The authenticity of Ayre’s project seeps through his work, as the paintings showcase the evolution of his own understanding of 2D art, coming from a background in 3D. “I think you have to kind of work harder to make a small, flat surface turn into something that’s worth looking at, or prick the imagination up to have you spend any kind of time with it”. These discoveries come to light in the gallery, as Ayres invites the imperfect in his work as a sign of learning and growth. The evolution of technique perfectly accompanies the subject matter of youth, as both highlight a time in which there was still more to be known, and accepting that as an important and meaningful part of life. Ayre’s sums the work up to a single word; Redemptive. 


Plein Air Guitar is a deviation from the typical material of the Fringe Fest, being an art gallery showing in a majority performance-based festival. However, Ayres’ focus on music and the nature of watercolor suggests a performance in itself. “The Fringe Festival is a performance festival, the fact that the subject that I’m painting suggests performance, because you know, guitar amps, and there’s a whole rock and roll aspect, a whole aspect of performing music all right there… In a way, both the rock and roll performance and also the performative aspects of watercolor. With oil paint, you can push paint around… even with acrylic paint you can paint over stuff. With watercolor it’s different, pretty much what you put down is what you’re gonna get. If you want a second chance, you gotta pretty much start over… there’s a real performance aspect to it”. If you’re a regular at the Fringe Festival looking for something to switch it up, or anyone looking for the comfort of nostalgia, Plein Air Guitar is a must-see funny and moving project. “I hope people can come out to the Fringe, enjoy the Fringe Festival for all it’s got to offer! … Come enjoy these artists and what they’re doing, I think all of these artists that are involved in the festival are doing labors of love and I think they’re worthy of support” says Ayres in his final reflections. View Plein Air Guitar September 18th and 19th at the See Here Now Gallery as a part of the 2021 Philadelphia Fringe Festival!  


Article by Maria Dragone, Photojournalism Intern