The Plein Air Experience- Painting from Nature
Updated: Oct 10, 2021
An essay on the process of open air expressions- Brian Keeler
Simply put, the activity of painting directly from nature, out of doors, en plein air has many appeals and challenges. Firstly, it is direct and satisfying as it represents the potential for unadulterated and unvarnished truth to be expressed. The ideal is to record one’s impressions and responses to the visible world. Of course it also allows for a springboard of sorts or a point of departure to allow us painters to express very individual impressions or records of our day.
The tyranny of the visible or the dictates of the model have been warned about by teachers as something to be wary of. In other words, the servile replication of the visible is not a path that is recommended. On the other hand, honest replication and transcription are worthy of honorifics as well. Edward Hopper’s rebuttal to critics who claimed he was making some overarching social statements, claimed that he was always trying to record his intimate impressions of the observed.
For myself, plein air painting has always been an important part of my artistic pursuit. And in recent years, the centrality of this outdoor painting has even increased. In art school, even back in high school we painted out of doors on occasion, but it was never referred to by the new French term that has gained currency. I recall classes with Ted Fitzkee, going out onto Market Street in York, PA to paint watercolors. Some of our other teachers there at the York Academy of Arts were consumate draftsmen and adept in watercolor, oil and pastel. The director of the school, William Faulkner was very adept at both studio and on-site watercolor.
I have always enjoyed the solitary pursuit of being out in nature, be it along the Susquehanna River, or mountain streams, over the Finger Lakes, in gorges, in Italy, Ireland and Maine among other locales. Of course there have been many enjoyable times with friends, students and amongst crowds in high traffic areas of tourists like Rome or Venice. It is an enjoyable way to meet people and converse about painting or discuss the history of subject. For example, one of my plein air experiences at this location, Sugar Hollow near Tunkhannock the neighbors stopped by. They were telling be about the imminent intrusion of huge windmills that were planned for the horizon. They were lamenting this technology obliterating the site line on top of the hills of this beautiful valley. Indeed, these BP Oil windmills are in a row on the crest of these hills. I did not include them in my painting, using my artisitic license, (ahem) to edit and control the work.
But what is about plein air that draws us in and offers a continued source of sustenance? Well the rewards and exhilaration are in part due to the process of marshaling one’s resources and skills in zen-like way to express the motif. The immediacy of the process requires quick action and decisions which rule out an overly conceptual approach. We are often not dealing with social or political agendas but merely wrestling with the pure aesthetic challenges of creating and crafting effective compositions. Art for art’s sake in other words.
I think of Corot and others in the early 19th century who were the trailblazers of the form, painting in Italy and France mostly. Corot gets the lion’s share of credit and press but a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last month reminded me that he was not alone. There were virtually dozens of Corot’s contemporaries also out there in the fields of the Campagna in Italy. They swooped to the peninsula from northern European countries to bask in the light and immerse in the tradition of art by Renaissance masters. There are several small rooms at the MET devoted to these progenitors of the out-of-doors oil painting tradition and little gems they are.
Speaking of editing and Corot, we know that there is a lattitude or allowance that artists practice. We could even say there is a hierarchy or an aesthetic dictum for what is emphasised or what is included. This is perhaps the artist's prerogative or even purpose- to select and evoke for personal reasons. For example, I suspect that Corot invented many of his dancing nymphs, boaters or peasants working in fields. I mention that here, as I did the same with the painting shown at the top of the balers.
The development of a distinctive personal voice, a visual brand so to speak, has been achieved by many through the tradition of direct observation. Cezanne come to mind with his courageous and forward leaning vision. His innumerable treks to Mount St Victorie and working from models (or not) all contributed to his unique vision.
En plein air is closely related in spirit and in process to the “alla prima” approach to painting. The term, alla prima, meaning "at the first" or in the French "Premier Coup" conjures up the bravura brushwork of Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Zorn, Sargeant and Sorolla with their figurative and portrait work. But it also is cognate with the landscape work. Both the French and Italian terms have a somewhat militaristic connotation as they imply a forward movement with marshaled skills.
As it is today, plein air painting has gained legitimacy and is widespread. There is a magazine devoted to just this genre and numerous festivals throughout the country also focused on plein air painting. Workshops and seminars are given internationally to offer experience in the pursuit in very exotic and inspiring lands. We think of painters trekking to exotic places such as the African temples or to Italy and the Levant for the brilliant light, history and exotic tradtions, clothing and religious settings.
The competitions and festivals, which I have participated in only twice are special events. The artists are all devoted professionals and serious about their art. The events have been referred to by some participants as boot camp. Indeed, and they do have an intensity and focus that warrants this characterization. We were motivated by the completion, its awards and possible sales. Most artists were producing at least two or three works a day. Add the framing and related events of these week-long competitions makes for a very intense and sometimes stressful experience. The comraderie and support of other artists is welcomed and reminds us that we are in this together.
My admiration and respect for my comrades and fellow painters has increased since doing these. And my grattitude for the organizers of these events is abundant too as they are huge projects with many moving parts. The artists are in the trenches so to speak and out there working hard. I’ll mention the passing of artist/musician George Frayne, aka Commander Cody ( who died recently) as he had a famous comment about fine art, of which he had and MFA and was an art faculty member at a University. He said it was all bullshit. Perhaps he was just referring to the art scene at the level on NYC galleries or international markets. But my take is that all the artists that I know and observe in the plein air or figurative realism scene are authentic and not involved in novelty or gimmicks.
There is somewhat of downside to this proliferation if not mainstreaming of plein air. I like the idea of pursuing a quest, a unique trailblazing, the maverick idea like Corot or Cezanne and trekking to nearby landscapes or forgotten edifices, fallen glories of Roman viaducts and the like. So the mass inclusion has somewhat pulled the rug out from under this idealism. The plein air convention in California is promoted as the Woodstock event for painters. Hmm, a certain appeal here but also a degree of overdone commercialism too.
Still, I love the pursuit and feel fortunate that I can combine a spiritualization of painting, as it has that element inherent as part of the process within a career. The blessedness of painting the humble aspects of everyday, a cloud formation, a light, the flow of land and weaving them all together into an expression on canvas is still compelling.
Part of the importance and validity of plein air study is that it carries over into studio work and sometimes the reverse is also true. We think of Corot working in the forest of Fountainbleau painting a copse of trees to bring that information back to his studio for the large canvas of Hagar In The Wildneress. So we can see and understand the dictum of “Tradition sustains innovation and innovation revivifies tradition.”
To view a video of the inception of the painting shown at the top, check out this link;