wednesday, february 22, 2012
What is plein air painting....really?

"Water Shapes"  Dena Peterson Kirk   8"x10"    Oil on Linen    Painted entirely on location, Big Thompson Canyon, between Estes Park and Loveland, CO

This painting was just accepted into the Plein Air Artists Colorado 16th National Juried Fine Art Exhibition and Sale (to be held at Wilder Nightingale Fine Art in Taos, NM, May 5-May 24, 2012). 

Shameless self-promotion aside, I am proud to be a part of this show; it is definitely not easy to get accepted.  Not only that, it isn't easy to create true "plein-air" paintings, especially those I would be proud to frame and hang in a gallery.  I would say out of all the plein-air paintings I do, only about one out of five are, in my opinion, worthy of selling.  That doesn't diminish the benefits of painting en plein air and is not a comment on my painting skills.  Most of the time, the paintings created in this manner are for my eyes only or to be used as a reference for a later studio painting.  I have a feeling this is true for many artists, whether beginning or accomplished.

Most people who have an interest in painting have heard the term "plein air", unless they have been living in a cave (hopefully one with awesome cave paintings, like Lascaux).  Plein air painting is simply painting in the open air.  Although it's become quite the catchphrase in the art world, it's been around since the time of the Impressionists and probably before.  Anyone who takes their paper, canvas, brushes, and paints outside to paint what they see there is painting "plein-air". 

Plein air painting is not for the faint of heart. It's hard work and requires a tremendous amount of concentration.  The physical demands of packing and hiking with all the gear can be daunting.  Setting up, dealing with the elements (wind, rain, snow, sun, bugs, mud, etc.), and packing up require some backbone.  Oh yes, then there is the part about painting!  Some would say, "the fun part".  Well, it is satisfying, but "fun" isn't necessarily the right word.  The hardest part about painting outdoors is in simplifying what one sees.  There is alot of information outdoors; often, too much to paint before the light begins to more than a couple of hours.  The novice painter will try to paint everything she sees, which, in my opinion, does not make for a good painting.  The real skill lies in learning how to simplify and edit.  This often takes years of learning and practicing. 

However, in  my mind, the very act of reducing a scene to it's basic elements is what makes the plein-air painting such a beautiful thing.  For me, a plein-air painting is meant to be a quick impression of the scene before the artist.  The best ones are generally smaller, thus not over-worked and fresh.  They are done quickly and instinctively, all while the artist applies the fundamentals of design that has taken years to master.  So, just because it is painted quickly, does not mean it is any easier or less valuable.  A doctor may be able to make a quick diagnosis; however, aren't you glad she has the years of training to help her to do it accurately?  Painting is similar, though maybe not so life and death (okay...sometimes painting feels like life or death to me!). 

What is less valuable, however, is when a painter sets outside to do a plein air painting and, for whatever reason, decides to bring it home and finish it in the studio.  To me, it then ceases to be a plein air piece.  Once in the studio, a painting that begins as a fresh impression, often ends up being overworked in an attempt to make perfect what wasn't meant to be in the first place.  The popularity of various plein air shows and competitions has, for me, taken away from the true spirit of plein air in many cases.  The pressure to have "finished" works to hang, sell, and be judged tempts too many artists to complete their work in the studio.  The very beauty of "plein air" becomes lost.  Additionally, the standards by which plein air paintings are judged by the public change...soon, collectors are expecting plein air works to be more "finished"; this often means larger, pricier, and more "detailed"...the very anthithesis of the beauty of a plein air sketch.

I urge all artists and collectors out there to beware of popularizing plein air painting events, shows, and competitions to the point that true plein air painting becomes extinct.

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05/11/2014 - Linda V. Campbell

Thank you for this insight. I've been struggling with my plein air pastels, ending up finishing them in the studio, where they do become more 'finished'. I've been working too large and your blog has inspired me to take it back out to the field and work smaller and looser, to capture the essence. You've defined exactly the point of plein air painting.

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