The Spirit of Plein air

John Henry Twachtman, Springtime, plein air, 1884

John Henry Twachtman, Springtime, plein air, 1884

Search the web for origins of plein air, and you can read much about the history in just a few clicks. Well before the Barbizon and Hudson River Schools, there are works that are believed to have been created in the open air by artists in the 16th century. Most of these earlier artists were sketching, although there are examples painted in oil as well. It is the French Impressionists of the1800s with whom we give most of the credit. They are believed to be among the first to create finished works on location. Direct influence from France directs our gaze west to early California’s artists’ colonies. Preceding the French by a decade were the Macchiaioli [Italian: Macchie means spots as in “I’ll have a macchiato (espresso with a dollop of foam) please.”) who painted the landscapes of Tuscany. The "spot-makers" painted all’aperto (in the open air) aiming at presenting every day life and customs, and focused on light and shadow. By applying patches (or spots) of color, they made small sketches, meant to represent light as it earnestly appeared to their eyes. Their works did not focus on contours, but on effect. Like the Italians, the Russians often painted rural scenes as a means to raise awareness of conditions there. The Russians, however, generally produced larger, finished works completed entirely on-site. The list of groups, cultures, practices, and nationalities goes on and on. My point here is this. If history tells us nothing else, whatever style, school, or geographic region in which you personally align yourself, without fail every scholarly entry on the subject discusses: an artist’s desire to capture natural light, shadow, and color; to authentically record the world as it appeared to them in a single, fleeting moment; to depict quick-changing light with spontaneity and life, (i.e., in the spirit of plein air).

Ivan Shiskin, Study for the painting “Lumbering”, plein air, 1867

Ivan Shiskin, Study for the painting “Lumbering”, plein air, 1867

Rafael Sernesi, Roofs in the sunlight (detail), oil on cardboard, all’aperto, 1861

Rafael Sernesi, Roofs in the sunlight (detail), oil on cardboard, all’aperto, 1861

Fast forward, 2018. With the advent of plein air festivals and competitions, the fluid definition of what is or is not acceptable has been defined and debated by artists far more knowledgeable than I. I have personally watched artists paint on the back porch of our shared condominium for entire days as they totally repainted and completed works from their on-site block-ins. Yes, they were outdoors, but I hardly think this should qualify as in the “spirit” of the festival. At another event a group discussion went so far as to include studio work that was derived solely from the plein air sketch. Still, another actually allow artists to use photographs clipped to their easels! What????

In order to paint our best paintings during a competition, I understand the desire to “edit,” as in move a tree, direct a path a bit differently, push a color, sacrifice one element for the strength of another. In the words of John F. Carlson, [Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, 1928], "We must not train our eyes to copy tone for tone, but think of the bearing of such colors and harmonies up the main idea of our picture.” In other words, translate reality in a way that gets your message across clearly. Thankfully, except when hired to do so, it is not my place to pass judgement on anyone’s ideas about this hot topic. I’m simply offering my thoughts and hoping to get you thinking about it too.

As an artist, I only want to paint my best work. If I am NOT competing in a festival, it makes no difference to me where the work was painted— indoors or out. As an artist "participating in a plein air competition," however, I’m a rule-follower. Most of us are, but not everyone. Luckily, like most mischievous behavior, often the truth comes out; usually right after the guilty party wins a big award and just cannot help but brag about how the work was painted. For me, I follow the guidelines set forth by the organizers of the event. These are usually discussed during an artists’ orientation. The guidelines include anything from, “We just want your best work that represents our area, no matter how or where you finish it;” to “It must be completed (100, 80, or even just 40%) on location.” There are dozens of variations in between. These festival organizers work very hard and have a clear idea of what they want their event to be. I think it is only fair to them and to the other artists to keep those parameters top of mind. On the flip side, as a festival judge, I believe I can usually tell if a piece was not painted from life, on location, and reasonably represents an actual scene. I’m sure I’ve been fooled, probably more than once. I’m very careful as a judge to know the exact parameters the artists were given in their orientation and use those parameters and my best set of eyes to make my winning choices. (Store this information for later just in case you are ever in an event that I am judging.) While I’m at it, may I add, that judging is generally a thankless job. You can only really ever make a few people happy, and I respect each judge’s right to judge as he or she sees fit. After all, it is our judgement that is presumably why we have been hired.

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Given there is such a variety with regard to competition etiquette, I propose a few questions for you. These are based on actual paintings I have witnessed being painted at competition festivals and presented as works created en plein air. I’m not trying to rat someone out or be a snitch here; promise. I’m sincerely asking you to think on these examples and form your own conclusions.

What do you think about a painting that is indeed painted on location, but contains virtually no elements of the actual scene?

Is there a percentage of the scene, that if used, makes a painting acceptable?

What about painting nocturnes in the middle of the day or sunsets at 2:00PM?

If we use the subject as our inspiration but change the light, is that okay?

What if we use the light as our inspiration but change the subject?

What if we just stand outside but paint a still life or portrait from memory?

What if it rains all week, but the award for best body of work goes to the only artist who made every painting filled with sunshine and shadow?

Is it okay to add boats, people, animals, UFOs, teepees?

Clearly, everyone draws his or her own line in the sand on this. Where is yours?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Claude Monet, Haystacks, Overcast Day, plein air, 1884

Claude Monet, Haystacks, Overcast Day, plein air, 1884

Claude Monet: Grainstacks At Giverny, Sunset, plein air, 1889

Claude Monet: Grainstacks At Giverny, Sunset, plein air, 1889

Claude Monet, Grainstacks at Sunset, Snow Effect, plein air, 1890

Claude Monet, Grainstacks at Sunset, Snow Effect, plein air, 1890

Personally, my preferred use for plein air is study and fact-finding followed by use back in my studio to paint more creatively there. As a teacher and workshop instructor of plein air, my favorite moments are when a students sees in a way they did not see before. I do not teach formulas, but rather development of sight. Does that make me Italian or French? (Either way, I get good wine and coffee.) Just think about the number of times Monet painted those darn haystacks, water lilies, and La Cathédrale de Rouen. He was studying.

Lori Putnam, Seafood Shack, 8x12 plein air, 2018

Lori Putnam, Seafood Shack, 8x12 plein air, 2018

If I am entirely honest, I have to admit that participating in competitions has been a huge catalyst for my growth. Plainly put, they are intense. Period. Even artists who absolutely thrive on doing them will say so. If you are open to capturing what is before your eyes, on a tight schedule, in the worse weather conditions, you are going to get better at it, fast—no doubt. If you have ever been interested and have not done so already, I highly encourage you to give them a try. I sincerely do not ever want to I discourage artists from being part of these amazing opportunities. The experiences, friendships, and learning will last you a lifetime. While you are there, I hope you will consider putting the “spirit” of plein air back into them.

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Images public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.




Lori Putnam6 Comments