Thursday, September 25, 2014

What Exactly is a Plein Air Painting?

I was going back over my blog posts and noticed how in nearly all cases I've taken my plein air efforts home and worked on them further to varying extents. So then are these not plein air paintings?  There are the purists who say a plein air painting must be done entirely on location. Others view plein air primarily as studies to use in studio paintings.

In the November issue of Plein Air Magazine Eric Rhoads weighs in on this this debate and says: “We must get beyond these arbitrary restrictions and focus on the important facts: Plein air paintings are those that are started outdoors on location and reflect the sense of a scene as well as the colors of light, shadow, atmosphere, and form that cannot be seen in a photo. Whether it's a study or a landscape painting executed in the studio that started en plein air, what matters is the end result: quality works begun – and, in many cases, completed – on location.”

One of my guiding principles (that I picked up from the advice of various master painters) is to never knowingly leave a painting with mistakes in it.  If you see a problem, fix it.  Always striving to work up to, at least, your own judgment or standard of quality.  This isn't always easy and often there's the debate of whether one should risk worsening a painting by trying to fix something.  But for the developing painter (not burdened with needing to sell paintings) I think it's better to err on the side of fixing mistakes.  So when I get a plein air painting home I don't hesitate to work on it further if I feel it needs it.

I can also the understand the purist's viewpoint.  I had a particularly good painting day last summer where I got into “the zone” and had a very enjoyable painting experience.  When I finished I felt like the painting was the trace of a great experience and I didn't want to change anything.  Almost as if I would be disrespecting that experience if I touched up the painting.  Of course, my more typical painting experience falls somewhat short of “great”, and I may not hold a resultant painting in such high regard.

These are my thoughts, and others may have different, and valid, ideas on some of these matters, but I do think Eric Rhoads is on the right track by emphasizing that what matters is adherence to the authentic spirit of plein air painting.

Tom Gilbert

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Tom. I could care less what "purists" think. Plein air painting should not be a game with rules and sometimes I get the impression from blogs and magazine articles that it is viewed as a sport and a rather :macho" one at that. That attitude is nothing new. Degas was annoyed by that attitude and reportedly said of plein air painting that "Painting is not a sport." Painting outdoors is a great way of learning how to paint landscapes and I think it is necessary but I don't think it's an end in itself. I do agree that sometimes it is best to leave the plein air painting alone and start a new painting of the scene in the studio based on what was learned from the outdoor version. But sometimes finishing up in the studio makes a good painting even better. Either way it is up to the artist and not rule makers. Personally, I know I paint much better in my studio than I do outdoors but I love being out there and I think I learn alot about light and color, etc. Lately I have been approaching my outdoor painting as gathering information, along with reference photos for painting a larger version of a scene in the studio and I think that is not a bad way to work. A lot of us have experience of painting in the many plein air competitions there are now which have very strict rules which are necessary to level the playing field for the competitions. But I think we may have started internalizing those "rules" and applying them to our everyday painting experience which I think is not necessary or helpful. The only rule I have when painting outdoors is to try to leave the place I paint in as good or better shape as it was when I came there. Thanks for bringing up an interesting subject. I hope others will post their ideas.