Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Why Plein Air? Is it Superior? What is the Real Purpose of Painting?

I have from time to time engaged in discussion, which ends up being debate...on what is plein air?  How much of the painting has to be painted on location to be "officially" plein air versus perhaps that portion finished in studio?  What I share here is my opinion, my argumentation presented once more on another online artist's community venue.  I put in enough significant time to present my thoughts whenever I do find myself surrounded by this question, that I have decided to share here what I have last presented.

One artist with some disdain, some cynicism decried the special place we might want to give plein air, making it out as some sport...when really it is only about make good pictures that matters.  I myself in my teaching oft say, "paintings work for reasons paintings work" and with that in mind...here is what hopefully you will find some interesting thoughts...
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I hate to say it, ...but life is a challenge, life itself has a sport aspect to its very nature...called, "survival"....and some do it better than others.  Simply saying someone is "spot on" does not make it so...and as I always say about opinions, and often preface before my own..."opinions are a bit like armpits.  Everyone has at least two of them, and most stink!"

If there is one thing I know from my many years moderating the many forums at Wetcanvas.com that I did, its that artists have opinions, and we tend to wear our emotions on our sleeves.  It doesn't take much really to raise dander or hair on the skin of our neck...but that is because we have so much passion to live the life we do.  That is...we live to embrace challenge...yet it seems to me in this thread we are working hard to minimize and even downgrade the challenges of that which we call "plein air."  So...I will offer yet another aspect, an opinion...and everyone is free to judge it stinky armpit to be tossed aside and dismissed.  :)

When I first began painting plein air, I was not aware of any such term...I moonlighted from the studio.  I was embarrassed of my attempts proving perhaps more how little I seemed to know about painting- even though I was surrounded in my studio with works done in-studio and a reputation that suggested otherwise.

My agent stopped by unannounced one day, and spotted a pile of small plein air efforts stacked along a wall.  Never intended for her to find them, but find them she did.  "What are these...?" her inquiry...and mine, "oh...nothing...just sketches, nothing really!"

She ended up winning an argument to take a pile and show them around.  I wasn't happy...but about two weeks later stopped by, all sold asking if I had more?  I was like, "what....people like those things?"  I was shocked, embarrassed still that such might represent me and my capability...but also somewhat surprised to learn a different clientele had an eye for such and would be interested.

When I attended a Wild Wings Wildlife Arts Festival as an invited participating artist...I ended up like a giddy school boy in the playground off to the side with Jim Lamb, Gary Moss...talking about this new thing we were obsessed with painting outdoors.  It was discussed on our lunch breaks and walking away from the exhibition that featured our studio works, somewhat guarded, hush hush...but with excitement.  Perhaps because we didn't know if folks would understand.  Though...the spark that ignited genuine excitement, was that Jim himself had a group display framed up of some of his plein air pieces.  Known affectionately for his frolicking puppy prints or retrievers and various sporting dogs.

Late that afternoon, Marc Hanson actually set up and demonstrated a plein air, and it was fun to watch.  I'm going to guess this was around 15-16 years ago...again, no phrase other than knowledge this was how the Impressionists did it...as did Church, Cole, Bierstadt...you name it.

Now...many want to do this...and add it to their repertoire to beef their bio, the changes to be part of a movement...sorta like some painted chickadees to call themselves wildlife artists in the 90's...and something that looked like bowling pins with wings attached they called ducks.

Many of the artists I know from the past part of this early resurgence leading to the vogue nature of plein air today, are now shuddering with reminders of what happened to the wildlife art movement.  It has always been about making good pictures, yes...but like anything there is a learning curve, and dues that need to be earned/paid to develop and master something.

Many now...are not referring any longer to what they are doing as "plein air"...but simply..."painting setup on location"...

It has been said several times now in this discussion defensibly, that painting is whatever and anything you make it...but always still with aim to make good paintings.  There is no argument with that.

Painting outdoors on location can be done to gather information, resources, sketches, studies for work to be done in studio.  No argument there.

Painting outdoors on location can be a personal desire to encounter nature, even the wilds more...and experience a spiritual growth, and the outcome of the pictures requiring no rules or expectations for mastery other than a record of one's experience.

We can all define and argue as much as one wishes...but know this, still...this even yet..if one wishes to paint with an association, or to enter shows...there will be criteria, RULES...expectations.  At that point...you decide to participate, or not.  Such rules for several reasons...one, continuity.  I am exhibiting in Richeson's Wisconsin Plein Air Exhibition at the Berstrom-Mahler Museum July 9th- Sept 18th...and as any of us having shown, knows there are rules.

Such rules level the playing field...and, for example, prevents an artist working all hours into the night not doctoring, tweaking, fixing in a motel room using a laptop monitor digital reference photo taken,  refining the work to some level that would then suggest to the viewing public later..."wow, here is an artist whose skill exceeds all others!  Such a talent!"  And the reason "fairness" is important is the public will draw inference that all painted with adherence to set criteria.

Now...if the sole purpose of painting is to make good pictures, being incensed at the breaking of such rules only because the individual wanted to make their "best" possible should and would not be an issue, correct?  We human beings seem to want something then a little bit more...and with painting, perhaps to hold up and perform our best under varying and even extreme conditions!!!

Plein air events have helped the public grow in understanding as they watch the artists work...as they come to understand that a painter that paints outdoors must come to terms with elements, sun, mosquitos and black biting flies, incessant silly questions from passerbyers...you name it, and stirs a sense of appreciation and respect.

Its sorta like...okay, one can participate in a shooting tournament at a range or site with targets set up, and the over arching understanding and creed is..."what really matters is that targets are hit!"  Doesn't really matter how they're hit...just HIT GOOD.

Like determining just making good pictures is what in the end matters.  But this is not so in the mind of many able to take in extenuating circumstances and understand the ante has been raised up.

If the shooting competition decides marksmanship on the move will establish the challenge, then another angle on this is factored in.  Still the aim that a target gets hit?  Oh sure...but a different level or regard for determining success, why we should be impressed or appreciative...is factored in.

Say one event is shooting targets while on full horse gallop.  Or, an event that simulates driving thru an Afghanistan ambush, a single dirt road thru rocky ledges both sides...and you have to shoot your targets with a vehicle is winding the road at good speed with all its bumps.

Again...one might say, all that matters is the target gets hit!

and...sure, we agree generally...good pictures, good paintings are the aim.

Yet having come into the "plein air" experience myself AFTER the fact of painting seventeen years at my easel in my studio, I can speak at least to my own experience that there is a difference between sitting at one's easel...in the comfort of one's home or studio.  Taking breaks.  Scratching out ideas and sketches...sorting thru photo references, allowing friends that stop by to have some input, learning to let the frolicking screaming and occasional crying of the kids not interfere, taking breaks for dinner...trips to town.  And that...of setting up on a location with its set of terms one comes to understand.

Is one better than the other?  No...just different.  The problem with dismissing thoughts aired on what plein air is in defense of the simple fact of what good paintings are, risks losing the sense that as a way to go about painting...as an event, IT IS DIFFERENT than painting in a studio.

I guess the real question then is...have we come to a point where folks simply don't think "the difference" is worth noting, worth any level of regard or respect?

If the goal is simply and always JUST ABOUT HITTING THE TARGET... then bench sitters with gun rests should and always will have rightfully the highest level of respect.

The human psyche is a bit more complex than that however.  We want to be entertained.  We want to ask the question..."sure...but what if we...."  and then somehow alter and introduce challenges.

We don't want just points on a scoreboard, we want to see leaps leaving the floor from the freethrow line, with a twist in the air and slam dunked.

Is the two points any BETTER because it came from a slam dunk?  I mean...won't the outcome of the game always be what playing the game is about, and which side wins the point of it?  Are good pictures always the aim of painting?

We can't blanket this discussion with the ease of a determination its all the same, only good paintings matter and then sit down to be entertained as we do with sport on television, one vocalist's stage antics and performance on stage versus another (because only good music matters right?)...

How can we treat what we do...so simplistically?

IMO it comes down to this.  We are all like books being written out.  Some by virtue of living longer have more chapters finished.  We will define what it means to paint, to attain, to have reputation to grow differently in one chapter...and then entirely possible that events that turn our worlds around (like getting ripped off from a bad agent), cause us to reform our philosophies, our worldviews.  Thus a new chapter begins. 

Some things however exist on their own...outside of our books being written.  Things that will be...what they are, despite our attempts to define or re-interpret it.

So...whether we like the terminology, dislike efforts to define what it is...the challenges are there to be embraced by all.  If good paintings are all that matter...some may find it easier or better to define "plein air" by one standard.  If good paintings matter ...but a twist on extenuating circumstances matter as well...it may create a standard of its own.

Some prize an environment where circumstances are more likely to be controlled and mastered.  Some prize an atmosphere of unknowns that sometimes are not for the feint of heart.  A particular thrill owing to something inside that yearns to see if one is up to the task.

One better than the other?  Well...what trips your trigger I guess?

Why not simply both...with the recognition both have their place?


René PleinAir. said...

Best read of this evening, ... thanks Larry.

I agree with every word.

Sonya Johnson said...

An interesting, albeit long, post on the subject, Larry. I no longer participate on WC forums, but I do recall some arguments of plein air vs. studio works. I found them neither interesting nor enlightening, as they were usually coming with someone with an ax to grind or insecurities about their own work.

One of the very best discussions I've yet to read on the subject was recently posted on Mitch Albala's blog - an excerpt from an old issue of Plein Air magazine, written by Matt Smith, on the synergy of plein air and studio painting. I couldn't agree with him more! My hope is that I'll see marked improvements in my studio work after a summer of on-location painting.


Larry Seiler said...

I found Matt's note on the subject equal for the most part in length...and good. I concur with much said, just envious that he has artists to paint with when he travels outdoors to paint. Thanks on that link, Sonya...

They are both different...they are both good, as painting styles. When Bierstadt, Cole, Church and Durand were doing their "painted sketches" back in the mid to late 1800's...those works painted outdoors were not considered proper for exhibition. Only studio works were the accepted public form. It wasn't until later in the 1800's that work executed on location was accepted as "an art" in its own right.

Taking what one observes outdoors in the one experience, adding to what is then possible in the studio is utilized to the benefit of many painters going back to the time of John Constable, to many painters today...Scott Christensen another fine example.

So many in our modern society are dull of senses. Learning by rote to effectively tune out the world about them. Plein air for some has become the means to suddenly find the blinders fall off their eyes...and the result is not so much work or interests aimed at being market ready as to a sense of emerging from a cocoon...wondering where they're attention has been all their lives, and it becomes for them a sense of almost coming alive anew. Almost shocking...

Paintings work, for reasons paintings work...I like to say, but artists become painters for perhaps many reasons. Those reasons from my position, need no justification...yet they find themselves oft in dispute.

A dichotomy to me are so many artists espousing that there should be no rules in making art. Perhaps no rules forcing an individual on their creative pursuits is a better way to put it...yet, there seems sometimes to be this idea or dare I say thinking by evidence of the debate painting often ensues...that would rule the ultimate "aim" of why in the end we paint?

Suffice it to say...if sales and besting other artists in competitions is one's aim, you will see a benefit in direct on location studies improve studio works toward that end. If the sense of a coming into oneself anew and finding relief from the rat race...brings a joy like no other then painting on location might become an end to itself.

I often find myself more enthralled and taken by the suggestive marks of the plein air studies of major respected painters today. For my eye...I see a spark of the expediency, that essential thing that nails the moment and I can feel myself standing there that is oft lost in the labored larger work. When the artist maintains that spark in the larger studio piece, magic and wonderment are certainly there. Almost difficult to even leave the room under that work's power and spell!