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Indy's plein air painting pair, Benny Sanders and Justin Vining

Benny Sanders opens Standard Studio Gallery with urban landscape exhibition

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Benny Sanders painting outside (or en plein air if you will) - ALL PHOTOS ARE EITHER SUBMITTED BY SANDERS OR TAKEN FROM INSTAGRAM
  • All photos are either submitted by Sanders or taken from Instagram
  • Benny Sanders painting outside (or en plein air if you will)

Editor's note: For centuries, painters have lugged their easels, brushes and palettes outside in the hopes of capturing elements of the world around them. The style became known as plein air, and today it's seeing a resurgence in urban spaces. Locally, Benny Sanders is one of those artists. Below, you will read Sander's story and descriptions of the places where he paints in his own words — and damn, they are some gritty locations.

It's a gray morning, on January 17, along the banks of the White River. 33-year-old Benny Sanders is standing under a bridge near the corner of Raymond and West Streets on Indy's near eastside. He's bearded and in a jean jacket and boots.

Sanders is looking calmly out at the brownish river flowing by, standing next to his canvas and painter's palette/paintbox, jerry-rigged to a tripod.

This painter, who's putting the finishing touches on a landscape with somber color choices and an expressionistic bent, is feeling bullish these days: both as a mode of expression, and as an occupation.

In fact he's so bullish that he's opening a studio gallery space on Shelby Street on Indy's Southeastside, called Standard Studio Gallery. It's set for an opening entitled New Views: Landscapes in Oil and Charcoal and will feature his recent plein air landscapes.

@justinvining killin it w/ this great composition

A photo posted by Benny Sanders (@dataplancowboy) on


Standing 10 feet away from Sanders on the river bank, is Harrison Center-based painter Justin Vining, his plein-air painting companion. Vining's also working on an oil landscape, painting what he sees. But his color choices are brighter, and the overall definition of features in his painting — bridges, water, sky — sharper.

It would be hard to mistake a Vining painting for a Sanders painting. Both Vining and Sanders are part of what might be thought of a plein air revival, part of a resurgence of representational painting in Indy, primarily among young artists, centered around the Harrison Center for the Arts.

Painting in the open air isn't a new thing, of course. It took off in the mid to late 1800s in France, under the influence of painters like Monet — now labeled Impressionists — who were more interested in capturing the quality of light in a natural setting than the concrete appearance of things.

#fountainsquareindy #duckpinbowling #pleinairpainting #pleinair #royaltalens #royalbrushart

A photo posted by justinvining (@justinvining) on


Impressionist-influenced painter T.C. Steele, the most important of the Hoosier Group painters, made Southern Indiana his home in the late 19th and early 20th century and depicted the rolling hills of Brown County in his work. He used those hills as his plein air studio. Many painters associated with the Hoosier Salon continued that tradition. But plein air painting was, at least until recently, more associated with Brown County than Downtown Indy. To see millennials out on a riverbank with palette and canvas seems sort of ... new.

The particular show that brought plein air into the forefront in Indy was the Summer Landscape Show at the Harrison Center for the Arts, curated by painter Nathan Foxton, in which Justin Vining was a participant. It demonstrated that there is a place for traditional styles within the realm of contemporary art.

Sanders was inspired to paint outdoors after meeting Vining at his place of work, Milktooth, where he works as a coffee specialist.

"He actually came to Milktooth," says Sanders. "He was painting in the morning and I was working. This is like right when I got interested in oil painting. I went out and talked to him. He was painting the building next to it. He said, 'I've been seeing this glare in the window; I really want to paint it.'"

Sanders graduated with a BFA in printmaking in 2006, but he didn't start painting with oils until this summer. After meeting Vining at Milktooth, Sanders asked to tag along on his plein air expeditions.

Sanders' subjects, most often portraits dark in both theme and palette couldn't be more different than the bright stylized landscapes that's now the Vining brand. In spite of their different artistic approaches and palettes, they began to go on these plein air expeditions together — and they became friends.

The idea of getting out of the studio had a real appeal to Sanders.

"Being stuck in a studio is really like being stuck in your own head," he says, taking a pause from his painting at the riverbank. "Where you're not actually experiencing something if you're painting from a photo. I guess it's a little different if you're painting from a model. But if you're painting from a photo or painting from a laptop, or just imagining something that's more like painting inside your own head rather than getting out and having an experience and having the weather affect the way you paint. Having the sky change every three seconds. Like right now, I'm pretty much done with my painting, just painting the sky changes. Just kind of enjoying being out rather than worrying about having shows or making money."

Out with @dataplancowboy today! #pleinair #pleinairpainting #rembrandtoils #royalbrushart @indyparks #indyparks

A photo posted by justinvining (@justinvining) on


Vining and Sanders have many interesting plein air adventures, like the time two weeks ago when they went out to Martinsville to paint the surrounding countryside, and when they found a particularly picturesque farm. The farmer warned them about a particular bull.

"And the bull comes out," says Sanders. "And he's just staring at us.... We're on the other side of a fence that's just rotten. At the same time, Justin saying that he'll get used to us. Then I back away. Then he takes his head and starts rubbing it furiously on this tree. And I didn't know if this is good or bad, and then he starts bucking, going around in circles. And then he comes up near us and I took off. And Justin's asking me 'Are you going to be okay?' And I'm like, it's not okay, we have to get out of here."

"The farmer was named Randy," adds Vining. "We named the bull Randy as well."

Encounters like this aren't uncommon for Sanders and Vining. The two have painted together nearly every day for the last year, and it's radically changing their work.

For Sanders — who has swept into the Indy arts scene with force — the next change is settling into his new studio/gallery space. His gallery is located in the former space of a former clothing store called Stud Styles, not too far from the Big Car mothership Tube Factory artspace.

Sanders is transforming the drab retail space located next to a "Cash for Gold" store. He's put gallery panels on the wall, and filled the space with a plethora of art books. And being the Milktooth coffee specialist that he is, he usually has a pot of coffee brewing in the gallery.

"I love this new interest in figurative work, even this landscape and plein air stuff," says Sanders, whose first show in the new space will focus strictly on his outdoor paintings. "So people contact me all the time, people I wouldn't peg as art lovers, as contemporary art lovers, contact me and say, 'love your paintings.' I don't think [plein air] is outdated. I think it's universal."

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"Randy's Farm" at South Mann Road

"Justin brought up in conversation that he wanted to paint an Indiana farm/barn scene. He seemed to be reserving this conversation thinking I would have found it, well, too stereotypical. I was actually stoked on this idea. While painting, we were approached by the friendly farmer who mistook us for land surveyors, farm hands who were envious of the profession we had chosen."  -Benny Sanders

Plein Air Problems // Light rain, understanding how to mix a decent green

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"White River Bend" at White River Municipal Gardens

"Justin received a recent commission request for a painting at Riverside High School (former Naval Armory) and wanted to scope the area. High winds and rain drove us across the river to a hill large enough to block blasting gusts from the northeast at Indy Parks' Municipal Gardens. We painted on a small docking raft used to load water skiers in and out of the water, which gave us an expanded view of the river. While I'm painting, I periodically stepped back at a room's length, and on this day I almost fell into the widest part of the river." -Benny Sanders

Plein Air Problems // Light rain, heavy winds, almost fell in the water

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"On the Bridge" at College Ave and Fall Creek

"I wake up at 5:30 a.m. most days, and New Year's Day 2017 was no different. I got up and set out into the dark to catch the sunrise at College Ave and Fall Creek. It was below freezing. I was excited getting my tripod, easel box and paints set up on the east side of the bridge. As the sun began to rise I realized that the composition just wasn't meeting my grand expectation, so I moved to the west side of the bridge. With the sun on my back and looking into the dark water, I painted mostly from blind imagination. The cold started to seriously sink in and I had to head back to finish the painting in my studio. I later learned that Justin got up at 8:30 a.m., thinking he would be the first painter in the New Year."  -Benny Sanders

Plein Air Problems // Darkness, freezing temps, high expectations

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"Tow Path" at Tow Path between Butler and IMA grounds

"Justin and I had been excited about painting the first snow of the year. We had a large thermos of Tinker Colombian coffee and a spread of pastries from Amelia's. Justin mentioned that he had never been so comfortable painting. I held my tongue as I was actually working on a commission piece and had chosen the location based on their request. We ended up seeing three people we knew out on the path, including Hoosier Salon Gallery Manager, Michael Sinon. Considering everything, it was a perfect day to be a plein air painter." -Benny Sanders

Plein Air Problems // none

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"Creekside" at Pleasant Run Parkway Creek


 "I set out alone to this little creek ditch off of Bluff road and Pleasant Run with about 45 minutes of daylight left to paint. I love painting along this little stream that runs the east and west length of the city. There are bridges about every mile to duck under and paint if it starts to rain, it's not as trashed as the White River, and the only human traffic consists of after-school kids who duck down to smoke and bash things with rocks. It's hard not to feel like a real troll when you spend the best part of your days under seedy bridges, in polluted creeks and crossing busy streets with a load of equipment, outfitted in mud soaked and tattered painting clothes." -Benny Sanders

Plein Air Problems // No toilets, feeling like a troll

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"Brookside" at Brookside Park

"We walked around Brookside Park for about 45 minutes, discouraged and trying to find the perfect place to paint. I have wasted so much time trying to find the perfect composition and could have painted twice as many paintings if I had just started painting. I didn't bring enough canvases for the day and Justin gave me a primed panel to paint on. I let him use my large mop brush, which seems to have impacted his entire painting style. I met Justin, just one week after I had started oil painting. I'm not a religious person, but this was one of those encounters that reached a spiritual level." -Benny Sanders

Plein Air Problems // indecisiveness, unprepared supplies, frisbee golfer

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"Rock Walls" at Turkey Run State Park

 "I recently took a trip to Turkey Run and Shades State Parks with my love, Hayley (not to be confused with Justin's wife, Halie). She is surprisingly patient with me in every facet of our life together and supports my in-over-my-head lifestyle. So while she hiked, alone, in the cold, for 4 hours, I painted between the rock walls. Families and hikers turned the rocky corners to find me painting and the "oohs and ahs" ensued as I fumbled around with what I perceived to be a very uncertain painting. Painting in plain sight makes me realize how rare it is for someone to be seen outside doing this. I've learned to love the vulnerability of someone walking in on one of my failures. Honestly, I'm not a great painter but I am dedicated and devoted to painting. The overwhelming amount of support that I receive for learning to do something I love won't let me ever give up on this adventure." -Benny Sanders

Plein Air Problems // Light snow, freezing temps, vulnerability

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"Stuttered Islands" Holiday Park

 "Justin and I headed out to paint with no specific destination and I blankly suggested the bridge at College and Fall Creek — which he accepted, then renegotiated, suggesting that we head north to Holliday Park. I had been to the park a few times, and we picked a spot with scattered islands that I had been wanting to paint. We forged our way onto a small island in the middle of the river by tossing large logs into the water to make unstable stepping bridges. Once on the island, the wind picked and it started to rain (as it does on most days we decide to paint). Sometimes it seems like nature is testing our breaking points, with winds blowing canvases off of our easels, freezing rain soaking into our gloves and the frozen ground transferring its unsympathetic temperature through our boots. All we can do is laugh and find a stopping point to move 100 yards north to paint under a bridge." -Benny Sanders

Plein Air Problems // Freezing rain, heavy winds, complicated composition

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"At Work" at Heslar Naval Armory

"This is a photo of me at work, taken by Justin. He is one of the few people that I know who truly does what they love for a living and on his own terms. When I met him, he explained that he used to teach and has an active license to practice law but would rather be painting. Justin is always excited to give me advice on how to be a successful professional artist, he shares painting techniques and supplies, he sends me an average of seven photos a day that inspire him on Instagram. He is willing to drive, buy lunch, is always willing to lug our 12'x12' rain and snow tent pretty much up or down any ditch, and has my back if anyone tries to stab us when we're out there. He is usually first to act on most of these things, but I've got his back too." -Benny Sanders

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