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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Painting En Plein Air is Painting Out of Doors in a Short Window of Time


Painted in one hour on the walls of Lucca, June 2015
It's wonderful to see the breadth of interest in the idea of plein air painting, especially in America. It’s not unallied to our penchant for know-how, figuring out how something is done, because it is, in fact, a learnable and teachable discipline. The phrase "plein air" has become so popular, in fact, that it has taken on a value that transcends its actual meaning. At one level, this is fine, since anything that gets people to paint landscapes is positive. But the confusion of meaning, to the point at which plein air becomes more a euphemism than a definition, defeats both an historical conception of what artists were doing in the past who painted en plein air (like the works in the Gere Collection at London’s National Gallery), and confuses the playing field for those doing it today (whether in terms of practice or the publication/premiating of practice).

Let me put it another way. Painting en plein air is painting out of doors, perforce in a short window of time. Anything that is not painted in that way is a landscape painting. That is not a value judgment—a well-painted landscape not done en plein air can be a much better painting than an actual plein air work. But to paint in the open air is to be subject to a moving light source (the sun) and a changing atmosphere. The former especially conditions the window of time within which the artist may work, because after about two hours (as Valenciennes recognized centuries ago) you’re simply not looking at the same scene anymore. While mid-day in the summer the light is fairly constant for hours, it’s also a bleaching light that rarely yields compelling paintings. Of course, you can try to return to the same scene over subsequent days at the same time and find the same light, possible in the summer in Italy but not often in the late autumn or early spring, much less in England any time. And since the reason people started painting en plein air in the first place was to record fleeting conditions on site, to bring back to the studio like captured game, why would you want to treat the out of doors like a painter’s studio, expecting to show up day after day to paint in the same conditions? Record your experience, and go home and work it up in the studio.

And it’s not true to say that the amount of time to make a painted sketch is not a factor in its appreciation. Fragonard famously painted a series of portrait sketches in an hour, which he proudly scribbled on the back of the canvas. I’ve realized that the time constraint focuses the mind, and forces a focus on the essential elements of a scene. Whittling the time down to an hour not only conditions a subject doable in that time, but an economy of means in realizing it. It shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the reasons to paint en plein air is to hone one’s skills, not only to bag an appealing painting.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Nizza is Nice

Seeking the pre-Nineteenth-century Landscape

watercolor and gouache on Arches grain fin
watercolor block
I’m happily, if briefly, back in Italy, and while here my wife and I made an excursion to Nice—or as the Italians call it, Nizza. It was in fact once part of what we now call Italy, as part of the Savoy dukedom; it was also the birthplace of Garibaldi, who went on to effectively create Italy from a patchwork of smaller states. So there’s lots that recalls Italy in Nice—the churches, one of which was designed by the great Savoy/Piedmont architect Bernardo Vittone; the fabric of Vieux-Nice, old Nice that spreads out as a triangle below the hill (which was the site of the earliest Celtic-Ligurian settlement) that separates the old town from the port. The colors are like those of Liguria, but there is the Proven├žal tonality that comes in part from painting the architectural details in the same or similar color as the walls (the Italians would render them white, or the color of the local stone). The city was first annexed by the French not long after the Revolution; returned to Italian (Sardinian) rule after the fall of Napoleon; and definitively back to France in 1860 (paradoxically, just as Italy was becoming unified). So I can be forgiven for posting a watercolor done there on this otherwise Italian plein air blog.

1910 postcard view from the citadel;
the sprawl has already begun
Nice has grown exponentially as beach-going became a big thing over the last century; indeed, standing on the hill overlooking the city it’s hard to discern where it ends—the sprawl is particularly unfortunate here, where the surrounding hills would have otherwise evoked a quintessential Riviera landscape. The hill itself, once a citadel, then a cemetery, and for roughly a century mostly a park, offers enough of an escape from the town, if not its weekend crowds (who flock there as well). But while I found the Place Garibaldi one of the most successful nineteenth-century squares I’ve seen, I find the nineteenth-century landscape rather over-designed and manicured—not the lushly shabby landscape I mostly seek out to paint in Italy.

For me the hardest part of plein air work is the choosing of a subject. I know watercolorists who can plop themselves down almost anywhere and crank out a passable image. I’m always looking for a composition with some structure: not all beautiful scenes make a beautiful drawing or painting. I spent an hour or more on a first excursion onto the hill of the citadel in the morning, to scout out some subjects; and then another hour in the afternoon to finally find a place to work, as the sun was slowly sinking. I found this compelling spot, on the flank of the cemetery, looking from the gate of the Jewish cemetery down a long ivy-covered wall toward the cemetery chapel. Color and structure brought me there, and if the image (done in a little over an hour) has any merit, it’s owed to these.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

What’s He Painting?

What He Sees.

oil on gessoed card, 18x36cm

If you paint en plein air anywhere in Italy but the remote countryside, you will be the subject of conversation, either directly or in passing. While painting on a winter’s afternoon along a high-traffic path into one of the smallest gates in the city walls of Lucca, I overheard this exchange between a mother and her young daughter:
M Look, that man is painting.
D What is he painting?
M What he sees.

That, in nuce, is what plein air painting is. Painting what you see. The challenge, of course, is that you can’t paint all of it, certainly not in a limited arc of time. So you focus and choose, from the moment you choose the subject to the aspects of what you see that you can or should include in the painting.

The scene I chose to paint is something I thought I could accomplish in roughly an hour. While I have long held to Valenciennes’ two-hour limit, I’ve found I tend to pick too-ambitious subjects to realize in that time, so now I’m aiming for an hour, which forces me to choose simpler, clearer subjects. And even if I stretch over the limit I’m still within a relatively small arc of time—more important in the seasons when the day is shorter and sun moves faster.

Compare this with a similar, albeit longer, view from the summer, to see the difference in hue of the sky, the trees, even the walls. The summer view was a July morning.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Patron of Painters

sign on the via Roma, Buonconvento
From Buonconvento to Rome

in situ, outside Buonconvento
On October 18th I found myself painting, without realizing it, on the feast of the patron saint of painters, St. Luke; I was in Buonconvento visiting painter friends, and we had an afternoon of painting en plein air outside of town on an estate in the process of changing hands (historically, it had belonged to the hospital in Siena). Days later I would be in Rome at a conference at the Accademia di San Luca, honoring the head of the artists’ and architects’ academy at the turn of the eighteenth century, Carlo Fontana. Serendipities.
in progress, outside Buonconvento; oil on gessoed board
I left the two paintings from the afternoon outside Buonconvento with my friends, since I use a slow-drying medium, and I was too loaded down to take wet paintings to Rome. Shown here is the first and larger of the two, in progress on site; I was using the burnt siena/ochre ground as the brickwork of the wall, allowing me to focus on modeling the shadows, foliage, etc. It was a two-hour painting, something I try fairly rigorously to hold to as a parameter; my second painting was quicker still, about an hour, and while less ambitious in subject it may have been more effective as a composition. No photos of that one in progress to share…

the Acqua Paola on the Janiculum, Rome
In Rome I stayed for two weeks at the American Academy on the Janiculum Hill, near the spectacular Acqua Paola; I tackled the fountain twice, once on the day I arrived, in the afternoon, and again a week later, early in the morning. For the second I managed to finish within an hour, partly because I was working under very changeable atmospheric conditions, partly because I didn’t want to get bogged down in details (see the photo). I think this may actually become my new target, one (intense) hour forcing me to focus on big issues and avoid fussing over the details. I use a linseed/stand oil medium because I appreciate the unctuous quality of beautiful paint, although it is paradoxical that quick painting is paired with slow-drying medium. Whether the narrow window of time makes for better paintings I don’t know, but it does make me, I think, a better painter.

afternoon, Acqua Paola; oil on paper
early morning, Acqua Paola; oil on gessoed board

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Morning Light

 Outside the Walls of Lucca 

I have to admit a preference, partly biorhythmic and partly aesthetic, for late afternoon light. Having to gear up mentally for the focus that painting requires, I’m not a spontaneous morning painter; but if I plan for it, there is something appealing about starting your day off en plein air. I did it in Rome several years ago, catching (within an hour for each) the changing light on the Villa Doria Pamphilj on the Janiculum Hill (paintings which inspired a later capriccio, the process documented in American Artist magazine’s January 2009 issue).

from the archives, June 2006

from the archives, June 2006

In the late afternoon (like this earlier post) the light gets progressively more interesting, and changes more quickly, toward dusk; in the morning, instead, the light changes rapidly at first, then settles into the slow climb toward midday. While the light mirroring solar noon—say, 9am and 3pm—would theoretically be the same, by the afternoon everything looks bleached out, while in the morning colors are still saturated, the reflections off the dew give the ground some sparkle, and haze pushes distant objects even farther away.

The mural circuit of Lucca offers appealing prospects across the arc of the day. While the walls themselves are fairly consistent, what tops them, and what surrounds them, changes from one side of the city to the other. Outside the walls to the north is the greenest swath of land, blocking out the urban sprawl which is kept thankfully farther away from the historic center than elsewhere. I’ve painted here in the afternoon looking east, but these images show a painting looking west from outside the northern city gate.

With a wide scene like this getting the perspective and proportions right is half the battle. After a loose drawing I started blocking in the grassy field and the central bastion, which anchors the image. The rest of the walls and their trees are mostly frame to these two primary elements. The light (and shadows) stayed fairly constant across the two hours of painting.