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...

Plein Air- What & WHY

On location at Bovay Scout Ranch, Navasota, Texas
Even though I can't get out much and paint outdoors as much as I would like to, ( because of sculpture and mural commissions ) I still consider "Plein Air" painting the most essential part of my art education. And I did not get it in art school. However, art school did introduce me to its sister discipline, that is painting figures and still-lifes from life.

This is the page where I will explain why it is so important, and try to encourage you landscapists to get out of the house and observe nature first hand, and paint from your own personal experience.

4 x 7 on masonite. A globe willow near Taos, New Mexico. Plein air paintings are small by necessity.

Painting out-of-doors, on location, or as the French Impressionists called it, "plein air," is the most instructive single practice any painter could have. After a lifetime of painting and teaching art, at age 32 I was "reborn" as a painter when encouraged to open myself up to this long respected, but highly neglected activity. I had always considered it a silly, elitist pastime, an inefficient exercise, and justified this attitude, believing modern photography had made it an anachronism.
 Tim Lawson and Jimmy Dyer painting in Jackson, Wyoming.

But one trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when I was invited by Jimmy Dyer to come hang out with some super landscape artists, and meet some American art legends who championed plein air, soon had me questioning most of what I had been taught before. And seeing the obvious improvement in my work finally convinced me. The whole trip was unsettling, and frustrating, and yet a revelation. I came back to Texas and told my students I was "born again." At first, few were interested in following my lead.

I came home and rigged up an outdoor easel...  a custom paint box on a camera tripod. (French easels were not as accessible or affordable) And I hit the roads here in Grimes County. I found there was much more to paint than I had imagined. First lesson: DON'T come to nature with expectations. Just try to be a worthy channel of what she gives you. 

I consider my friend, artist Jimmy Dyer a great benefactor in several ways, but mostly because he saw potential in me and insisted that I stretch a little to be a better artist.  He did not stroke my ego. He did not pat me on the head. He raised the bar for me and challenged me to reach. That is what I want to do for you.

I usually will not sell my field sketches, as they are too valuable to me as color and value guides for larger works. Sometimes I do go ahead and finish one, and sell it if I have more than one of a particular landscape scenario. This was my first field sketch after I returned to Texas to lick my wounds... and start my artistic style all over again. That was in 1987.

So what's the big deal about this?

Cameras are limited. If the human eye has a range of perception, say from 1 to 10,  a camera has the capacity to capture around a range of 1 to 7. When you take a photograph, you have to make a tough desision, which 7? If you get the brights, the darks go black. If you get the darks, the blue sky turns white. If you take the middle, you lose the two extremes.  So cameras miss essential details about VALUE.  And just as critical, the camera and especially digital photography, totally miss certain colors... absolutely cannot match them. So if you depend on a camera, you are already losing a third of what you wanted to bring home for inspiration.

And there is something else, even more subtle, that painting from photos will never achieve. That is sponteneity. When you are painting, trying to quickly capture a scene before the light changes... you are forced into your own style of shorthand, so to speak, with a brush, to put down the essence of the scene.. and you make important decisions  about what to leave out, what to move, what to focus on... that is more important than most other functions of design that you impose on the photo in the comfort of your studio. There is no replacement for being there.

We know that the shadows in the tees in the foreground are the same as those in the distance, but atmosphere; the combination of heat waves, humidity and dust and whatever, cool the shadows and make them more blue in the distance. Photogrpahs miss much of these nuances.

And even more importantly, you can see things with the eye, on location, that are almost impossible to conjure from a photograph; details, values and hues of color inside of shadowed areas; The changes of color temperature of the very same objects from the horizon to the foreground. This is very important to achieve good landscape. If something is cool... you have to ask yourself, cooler than what around it? If it is hot, You have to observe this and record it first hand.

That's my story and I'm stickin' to it!..

Seriously, as "plein airists," we face some tough challenges sometimes. I have painted in the rain, hail, frustrating winds and blistering heat. Gnats, ants, bees, and pesky onlookers offer constant distraction. But this is a job for me... it's not always pleasant. But sometimes the scenery makes it all worth it.  After I am home in my studio I would not trade for the field notes I have as a resource, for years of reference.

Tim Lawson painting a forest fire in the Grand Tetons. Don't contrive, paint what Nature gives you!

During one of my spring plein air workshops, students had to bundle up to paint the bluebonnets.

Back in the late 80's I taught my first plein air workshop... it was at Camp Allen, here in Grimes County. A frisky bunch of mostly elderly ladies from the Hempstead Art League agreed to give it a try. They and the club are almost all gone now... but I am indebted to them and their devotion to trust me with my "new doctines." Yes, I was skinny once.
Since then I have painted all over Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, the Carribean, and even in New Zealand.  Won't start a painting without adequate resource material... hopefully good field sketches. And yes, I still take lots of photographs for compositions and details.
 Using acrylics while painting Mt. Cook in New Zealand. New Zealand is the only place I would leave the United States for... the most wonderful people and the most fabulous scenery in the world.

So you say, I can see that this has affected your artistic experience... but is it necessary for everyone?

No, it is not.

Especially if you do not care about landscape. And if you can say that your style is working for you, and giving you pleasure,  and you are satisfied with your work and your sales, you should not mess with that. But maybe someday you will wish to add some sunshine or adventure to your art experience... then this might appeal to you. 

Plein air is the combination of travel, hunting, creativity, picnics, and for me, even WORSHIP, and when shared with others, is the ultimate art lifestyle. This is why the French Impressionists became so devoted to it... It becomes a society... an outdoor school, a workshop, and a platform from which to tell your story. It never gets boring.  There is always a challenge which you have never experienced.  There is often someone to whom you can pass on your wisdom.  There is a growing treasury of useful field sketches that bring back many memories that photos cannot even begin to evoke. 

But no, it's not necessary.
This was a practice passionately pioneered by the French Impressionists who broke away from the norm of artists painting "guesscapes" from their studios, and emphasizing the importance of painting from LIFE, from actual experience, from actual observation of the subject, and most importantly, in natural light. The practice not only caught on, it became the standard by which all landscapes are judged.
When my friend and mentor Jimmy Dyer introduced me to plein air back in 1986, I was already an established, award winning art instructor in the Houston area, but I soon found I had a lot to learn. Jimmy and his painting associates had been affected and improved a great deal when they began to listen to the great American master painters out west such as Tom Lovell, Wayne Wolfe, Ned Jacob, Richard Schmid and Robert Loughheed, all of whom were zealous proponents of "painting out-doors." After working with him a few days, I was convinced the difference was so important, that I came home and reinvented my style. In other words, I started all over again.
Done swiftly and spontaneously, out of door paintings tend to ignore details and rather focus on light, values, and subtle hues, trying to capture a scene's atmospheric qualities.


One last thought

 Even if an artist works soley from their "imagination"...  that imagination is merely a hard drive crammed full of random images... stored symbols, things, perceptions, all previously seen with human eyes, from LIFE. An artist may morph or rearrange these things, but they rarely "invent" anything that they have not first captured and stored, mentally.  Painting and drawing from life helps expand that universe as well. Even if landscape is not your goal, 2-D communication is, and plein air painting helps strengthen your powers of observation, your understanding of nature, physics, geology, biology, TRUTH, and that translates into greater, more convincing art.

Everybody wants to be a genius... create their own reality, their own universe... but there is only ONE genius.  And when you are out there, you are looking at it. That's as close as it gets.

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