This is an article I wrote on plein air painting it was published in the Times Standard newspaper. They did a bit of editing, this is it as I wrote it. I thought it would be fun to share it with fellow bloggers.
“Plein Air.” Means in open air, it is a style of painting that is somewhat common in this day and age and has recently become quite popular. There are shows and exhibitions all over the world and some Artists have become renown in this style of painting. It has also begun to be popular with the collector. It has not always been this way. At one time there were only three sources of patronage for the visual arts. The church was at the top of the artistic food chain followed by the state and then the aristocracy. The Artist did not have the luxury of choosing their subject matter. They Painted for the church, the king or did portraits for the rich and powerful. They were trained accordingly. For the most part they were taught the craft of painting and expected to paint in the style of their teachers. There was little room for innovation and even less for personal observation. Most of us think of art as the expression of the inner self or a byproduct of personal observation. This in fact is a modern concept brought about by the artist being able to choose their own subject and gaining the freedom to express it in their own language. In order for this to happen, things had to change. As in most things it all came down to economics. The church and state slowly lost their strangle hold on the common man and a middle class began to emerge. The controlling powers did not go away they just shifted into a less controlling posture. There are so many forces involved in this shift it is beyond my historical ability to go into them all. This emerging middle class developed a wider range of taste and circulated more cash than ever before, thus more money for art of different kinds of art. The very concept of just what art is changed for both patron and the artist.
As the thinking changed the needs of the artist changed with them. At one time all paint was mixed by hand generally by the artist or his apprentice who bought the raw materials and ground them into powder and blended them into various mixtures of solvents and resins such as Damar varnish and linseed oil. A pig bladder was the accepted way to carry such concoctions as one can imagine this could get cumbersome. Technology as it always seems to do caught up to these new needs. The advent of the lead tube for carrying paint was huge. Brushes and portable easels were mass produced and became much more accessible and affordable. For the first time the common man could also pursue the arts. This type of painting was popular in the 18th and 19th century and then seemed to fade with the advent of modern art. The fact that it has endured and has once again emerged validates it as an important part of the continuum of art.
History lesson aside I can from personal experience testify to the difficulties and pleasures of Plein air painting. It is a discipline that is not for the feint at heart. It takes many years to do a believable landscape at all let alone out in the open air. This “open air” thing sounds benign and pleasant, which it is. But with the “open air” come the flying gnats, the biting bugs, and the blowing wind. Not to mention the freezing cold, the blazing heat, and the astounding amount of dirt, leaves, pine needles and other vegetable matter that seem to be abnormally attracted to your canvas. Sometimes bugs dive bomb into the paint and swim across the sky leaving a wake of tiny foot prints. I have had my entire easel paints brushes and all lift off in a gust of wind and hurl itself into the river. After retrieving my floating brushes I had to dive to the bottom to get tubes of paint. Then I had to tie a stick to the easel to replace a broken leg. As they say “The paint must go on.” I have huddled under a tarp in the snow and rain and thought that I may never be warm again. I have had the easel collapse sending the painting and pallet into the dirt only after giving each other a big smearing wet colorful kiss on the way to the ground. This only happens when you are just about finished of course. Paint can be insidious and darn right clever in its ability to get all over everything before you know it. Oil paint is always at room, or should I say outdoor temperature and you don’t feel it like you would a liquid. Generally it takes another painter to come up to you giggling and say “nice yellow nose.” This just covers the pleasant parts. The wind can drive you insane. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt like a complete fool screaming long strings of obscenities at the wind. Even if it isn’t freezing you to death it is constantly moving your easel and canvas all over the place when it is quite strong it is surprising how it moves your body. This makes any semblance of accuracy impossible. I have often thought I should try a new type of impressionism, by painting in the wind, just mix the color hold my brush close to the canvas and let the wind do the work.
The upside of working Plein Air for me far outweighs the inconveniences, except when I’m trying to paint in the wind of course. There is no substitute for direct observation of the landscape. There is no better way to understand it than to be in it. Walk it. Touch it. Smell it. Get out in it and feel it. Let it speak to you. If you listen it will. Don’t paint that tree from a distance without going up to it and introducing yourself. Find out how it feels, how it smells, what its bark, leaves and roots look like. How does it stand, why is it in this place? Then go back and paint it. Even if you do not paint it well the knowledge will help the next attempt. Painting the landscape in Plein Air is a body of attempts it cannot be achieved in a single lesson. Along the path you get some good and some not so good but they are all bricks in the wall. I think it was Richard Smicht that said” if your painting falls short at least you have had a nice day in nature. For me one great benefit of working in the field is that it is a good deal of exercise. I often carry thirty to forty pounds of gear all over the country, set up my easel and stand painting for several hours. When I am camping on location it is not unusual to paint for ten hours a day. I love the adventure and discovery. It is a needed change from the sedimentary life of the studio.
As in any style of painting there are different approaches. Some, Plein air painters work on large works taking them to the same location every day until they finish. They paint in short blocks of time of an hour or two at a time so that the light does not change too much. It is a good idea to have a painting for each block of time in the same location. That way the artist can work in the same place all day. These larger works tend to be a composite of a place and season gleaning bits of information from each day. It can be frustrating. If you start in the sun it will get fogy. If you start on a nice calm afternoon the wind will blow for a week. One trick is to get something started for each condition and be ready. I have worked in this style but I tend toward what is called Ala Prima. This means basically that the work is created in one pass on the spot with no revisions. As one can imagine it is not always as successful as one would like. But there is a freshness and a purity of direct observation that comes through. . This is not to say that I always stick to these rules. I have in the past and still do work on them in all phases of their development. But if at all possible I leave them alone. The urgency of this approach keeps me on my toes and forces me to extreme concentration. I know that I have to do it right the first time. Knowing this, changes the way I start and even the research I do in finding what I want to paint. I plan out when and where I am going to set up according to my anticipation of what the light is going to do. If I want to paint the nine o’clock light I am there at seven thirty setting up and getting my drawing in. When the light swings across that, twenty minutes of light that I want I go like crazy to get the essentials in then the rest of the time I clean up the gaps. This type of painting necessitates a quicker application of paint and an economy of brush work. Each stroke is critical. The paintings tend to be more painterly and of smaller size. One of the things I like is that it is a statement and recording of a single day, a single block of time. The entire story is about that one time and place, told in one song.