Just the other day A friend asked me “What is Plein Air”? My initial response was laughter because over the years it has come to be known as so many things. Some people would describe it a style of painting, one that use’s broad stokes of paint applied quickly to the canvas in order to catch the moving light. Others would say that a “true” plein air painting can only be painted while on location even if you need to go back to that location on several different occasions to finish the painting or make adjustments. Still others would describe it as simply painting on location, plein air comes from the French which means painting in the open air. I have always viewed it as the later.
Before I go any further, let me just say that what I’m about to say is, only “my opinion”. There are many of you who may agree or disagree with what I have to say. I simply want to start a discussion.
The early “plein air” painters used this method of painting to capture the light in small studies which would be later used in the studio to create large scale paintings. It was a tool to accomplish something greater in the studio. Artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill used their studies of Yosemite and other locations to create the large scale paintings we see today in museums around the world.
I started painting on location around 1995 when my art made a sudden shift ( literally over night) from very detailed paintings of wildlife and landscapes to a more “painterly” or looser approach. This approach meant using oils for the first time as well as much larger brushes. My first location to paint was in the narrow valley leading to the small town of Half Moon Bay on the California coast. It was a great day spent with my teacher from high school who had tried for years to get me to try this thing called “Plein Air”, he finally convinced me. While on location he told me I had 30 minutes to finish my painting, 30 minutes! It was a great exercise in painting quickly, an exercise, or way of painting that I use in the studio as well. Although my first attempts of painting on location were pathetic failures, I found painting outside very enjoyable.
As many of you know, when you go out painting for the day you never really know what kind of light you’ll have for the day. It may be sunny or you may get those high thin clouds that are the bane of any plein air painters existence. One of the things that struck me early on was how many artists would only paint what they saw irregardless of what the light was doing (or in many cases, not doing) They painted drab scenes in the middle of the day when the light was high and fairly boring. And when they finished their painting they got exactly what they were looking at, a boring painting. I should know, I was one of those artists. We shouldn’t be surprised, after all, it’s what we were taught when we signed up for this plein air stuff. You only paint what’s in front of you. You only paint the light of the day even if it was drab and uninteresting. This was my approach for quite awhile before I remembered I was an “artist” who had the freedom to be creative. I didn’t have to be stuck painting exactly what I saw in front of me. I eventually learned this from my High school art teacher Bill Rushton. He always uses what he sees as a springboard to something different, something more. Aspects of what he sees as an artist always show up in his work but in ways that bring freedom not constraint.
Shortly after this realization I began to use the landscape before me as a springboard to something more. Sure, there were plenty of times the landscape before me needed no changes, the light was beautiful as is. But there were other times when the light was boring but the landscape had shapes or designs I found very appealing. I began to use those elements of inspiration to create paintings that possibly had little to do with with what I was looking at, I was using the landscape as a springboard. This method of painting opened up a whole new world to me. I was able to see more than just what was in front of me, I saw what could be. This is the method I use today whether outside on location or in my studio. Other artists began to learn of my method of painting and some were very intrigued while others took offense, I wasn’t following the “unwritten rules” of plein air.
It’s sad but there are a few “unwritten rules of plein air” floating around out there. Here are a couple of them.
Rule 1: You only paint your painting on location, no touch-ups in the studio. Many artist believe that a plein air painting can only be worked on on location. If you discover you’re painting has a problem when you get home you must go back to that location to fix the problem. Let me just say that if you believe this in your heart then by all means head back out, but if you’re doing this because someone told you this is what “Plein Air” is, then I have problem with that. The most important aspect to me is whether or not the painting is a good painting, not where it was painted. I don’t care if the painting was painted on location, in your backyard, your studio or your bathroom, the same question remains: is it a good painting? Let me put it another way. If you had a choice between purchasing a bad painting done on location or a good one painted in a bathroom, which one are you gonna choose. I know it seems a bit extreme but I think it drives the point home.
Rule 2: You only capture the mood and light of the day. If as an artist you believe this is true in your heart of hearts then I believe this is right for you as an artist. But if you don’t then be all means make the changes necessary to make your painting your painting. Use the elements that bring inspirations and use them as a springboard to something more, even if in the end they have little resemblance of what you’re looking at. If you’re on location with others you may get some funny looks but you’ll be happier with your work.
I don’t teach many workshops but when I do this aspect of painting in the studio or on location is what I teach. To learn to see what could be. To use our imaginations in a more creative way when we approach our paintings. The response has been great. The people who have come to my workshops have expressed how much they enjoyed this method of painting and how it’s like nothing they’ve ever experienced. My workshops are not easy, they are very challenging. They get you to think in a whole new way and you get to break a few rules along the way. What I teach is simply another tool you can choose to use while on location or in the studio.
Let me be clear, if you choose to follow some of the unwritten rules because you sincerely believe strongly in them then I think you doing exactly what you should be doing. You’re following you’re convictions as a creative individual. We need to remember that we are artists first. We shouldn’t be bound by the rules of others but only by our own convictions as artists. We need to be creative individuals who think on their own, after all, it’s your name on the painting.
So, What’s plein air? Let the discussion begin.