“…loose, spontaneous work is full of accident and inspiration. And great paintings done in this manner can never be duplicated – the painter himself doesn’t know how he got some of his effects. All he knows is that he was outdoors. Something happened to him. He saw differences; he felt the shadows and the textures – and put them down. Such painters see their pictures even before they begin them – as if in a dream. The subject hits them hard. When they finish, the picture is better than nature, but never as good as what was in their mind’s eye. They worry about it, of course – but they also know that you can never achieve perfection. There’s never an end to things.”
En plein air is a french term generally used to describe painting outside. And that’s where the agreement on the definition of plein air ends. Read any artists trade magazine or technique book and you’ll find oodles of opinions on what does and does not constitute a plein air painting. Some say that the entire work has to be done outside, on the scene. Others say it’s fine to finish it in the studio. Some say photographs make fine reference material. Others say it must all be done from visual memory. I have to wonder if anyone other than the artists have any idea that all this arguing is going on, or if they even care.
For the most part I find myself in the middle ground. I think plein air can refer to a painting completed entirely on scene, or one started on scene and finished in the studio. If an artist wants to use photos, they should use photos, and if they don’t want to use photos, they shouldn’t use photos, and can we all please stop being so judgmental about the use of photos for goodness sakes. There are times when the definition of plein air matters more than usual, such as in plein air competitions and festivals. In that case, artists are all working under the same time constraints, trying to create and finish as many plein air paintings as they can by the deadline, and there’s usually a competition component to the group show. If an artists snaps a photo and then heads back to their hotel room to paint all day, I think in that case it’s perfectly ok to argue over the definition of plein air.
Finishing a painting entirely on location is incredibly difficult. Maybe pursuit of recognition for the accomplishment is why artists argue about the definition. After about 3 hours the light is too different to continue, except for night scenes and even then anything beyond 3 hours gets a bit tedious anyway. Being able to adequately represent a scene in just those 3 hours, with all the challenges of working with wet oil paint, is still my holy grail. Maybe because my usual way of working is so different. I tend to work on my paintings for hours and hours in the studio, sometimes giving them a complete overhaul. Both methods have their merits, and I think certain subjects are better suited to different ways of working. But with every start, my goal is to finish right then and there.
On a recent painting trip to Carpenteria I started five paintings. I’m happy with all five starts, and I’ll finish all of them eventually. One though, I actually finished on scene. The very first time I’ve ever done it. In just 3 hours I was so happy with my painting that I planned on posting it as-is. It was a cold and blustery day on the beach and I hunted down a safe spot to stash my wet painting while I packed up… and when I picked it up I saw a fine dusting of sand over the entire surface. Doesn’t it just figure. I let it dry to see how deeply embedded it was, and it’s definitely not coming off without damaging the entire work. So it’s staying. I’ll call it Added-Value. Character. Atmosphere. Doesn’t much matter as long as I get to call it done.
…now somebody please take this paintbrush out of my hand because I’m just itching to add a couple highlights here and there…