I manipulate metals and minerals and bonding solutions in order to provoke emotional responses from people I will usually never meet. That which happens in the process some people call art. My talent for creating icons and illusions turned into a lifetime of manipulations... in various pigments, bronze and steel, some quite large, which loom in museums, schools, collections and public places all over Texas. Here on this blog you can watch my creative actions and insights unfold...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What is "Plein Air"?

A dry gully empties into the creek in the belly of Palo Duro Canyon.
Plein air painters can be kind of like reformed smokers or alcoholics... they seem to take a superior, all-knowing stance and make other artists miserable with their quasi-scientific, technical talk about "edges" and "transitions" and "values." Suddenly they assert confidently how they understand art, nature, artists, YOU, everything... annoyingly so. I have been one of those smug "outdoor painters" for a long time... as I taught or chased off all of my disciples. What could possibly make an artist so insufferable?

It's a French term, so that fits. It comes from the French Impressionists who thought they had invented something... painting from life, in the OPEN AIR, out in the fields of France. But a simple definition will not do. It was, more importantly, what happened to these pigment slinging iconoclasts, as they began to paint in the sunshine... and the dust... and even the fog and the rain.

About 90 minutes of intense study... produces an 8" x 12" field sketch on Masonite panel done "Plein Air" at Palo Duro Canyon. The details and colors and values were swiftly and yet carefully recorded.
A photograph taken at the same time. Cameras exaggerate light and shadow and miss the true colors of things. Digital cameras have serious blind spots to certain colors.
Rendering a landscape became an experience;  A souvenir from real life; with glimpses of real life; the sheen from the sun, the haze from the dust... and it became a real life struggle to capture a particular moment in nature. It was not enough anymore to paint contrived counterfeits of earth and sky. Artists began to speak of mass, form, atmosphere and temperature.  And landscapes would never be the same.

Sure artists have always depended on their imaginations to create their works as well, but artists ever since Monet and Pissaro and Van Gogh have found spectacular effects while studying nature; while painting what they see, or trying to, as opposed to their own pre-conceived, if not ill-conceived notions.

John Cogan and Stephen Williamson discuss "transitions."

If you are not an artist, it is hard to quantify the difference. But most plein air painters would agree that the difference in their work would be the same as the difference between a day on the beach and a snapshot of it.

I have often told my students that the difference between my work now than before is the difference between a color and a black & white photograph. We all carry snapshots in our memory, and these were re-enforced for artists through photography... but there will never be a substitute for an immediate, hands on experience. The difference for the art audience is more exciting art, greater passion, greater authenticity, and most importantly, an artistic statement with just one step between them and the great wide open. Like a gardener handing you a handful of fresh vegetables, or a hunter handing you a day's kill.

And for most plein air painters, it does get to be more like hunting or harvesting than the tedium of artwork at a desk or an easel.  They become restless with studio work as they suffer through it, longing to make another plein air trip. They become more at home, more creative, more artistically satisfied, anywhere out of doors, where they mine for images in the wealth of God's Creation. I soon began to realize that plein air painting was also, for me, another form of worship of God.

So you can see, it is a big deal to those that partake. When they appear a little distant or opinionated, as if they have someplace else they need to be. They do. It is the call of the wild and making a living and worship all rolled into one. And maybe that will help you understand why they seem bored with just hanging out. There is nothing plain about plein air.

When you look at it, realize there were numerous thoughts that went into each and every stroke... done by human hands, in a very limited space of time, a Divine mystery on canvas... and you could even own such a thing!


1 comment:

  1. Well said. It's often amazing to me how much more the painting can capture a story than the reference photo does. We're painting a concept in nature. I wish everyone could experience that.
    Oh, I think that orange/white rock we saw in the gully was "Cloud Chief Gypsum", 250 million years old. It's calling to us. Paint me.