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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.

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