Friday, April 27, 2012

What is plein air?

An antique tool for pleining air

I will be participating in Paint The Town, an event in Cranford, New Jersey, the 5th through the 10th of June. The organizers asked me if I would write a short description of plein air painting for them.

Plein air painting is landscape painting done on location, that is, outside. People today are accustomed to seeing painters with their easels out painting, but in the long history of art it  is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the mid 1600's, landscape was merely a background for figures. As landscape gradually became more popular, painters made reference sketches out doors, usually in pencil or chalk, but a few actually took their palettes outside and made colored sketches. These works were studies, or rehearsals for paintings that were later made in the artist's studios. They were never intended to be finished works of art and were rarely exhibited. But the artists enjoyed showing them to each other and would sometimes exchange them as gifts.

In the nineteenth century, as landscape subjects grew ever more popular, artists relied more and more on carefully observed studies done on location. In the eighteen seventies a group of French painters led by Claude Monet began to make  paintings outdoors that were the finished work themselves. The  recent availability of paint in tubes rather than ground in the artist's own studios provided a new portability to the artist's equipment. Colors unavailable before could actually match the appearance of nature in sunlight. This group's name, the "impressionists" was first  used as an insult, and was taken from the title of a Monet painting "impression, sunrise". The impressionists' discoveries produced radical bright colors and purple shadows and revolutionized landscape painting. The old brown gravy that served as the air in paintings a generation before disappeared, replaced by a  sparkling and colorful freshness. The new painting was valued for its spontaneity and visible brushstrokes, the handwriting of inspiration.

Impressionism swept the art world and an international movement  began. Artists spent summers painting together in art colonies scattered throughout the world. As modernism became the dominant art philosophy after World War I, more and more painters returned to the studio and plein air painting gradually became a rarity. In recent years, however, there has been an explosive revival and  thousands of easels are set up before nature every day, plein air painting is again an important part of our culture.


 Monet's impression sunrise

 Because of the popularity of paint outs and plein air competitions, organizations have set rules for what is and what isn't plein air painting. These rules specify how much of a painting must be done strictly outside, whether the work must be done in a single session, or sometimes, in a fixed amount of time. Because of the nature of these events, they had little choice, as the occasional artist would try to cheat the system by bringing paintings made at home from photographs to exhibit as plein air paintings.Within the context of organizations devoted to plein air and particularly in competitions intended to be "fair" those rules were necessary and appropriate.

When I am in an event that is billed as "plein air" I accept the rules of the event's sponsors because that is the condition of participation. I don't, in fact, usually refer to myself as a plein air painter, but as a landscape painter. I think that outside of those venues though, a painter should do whatever it takes to get the best possible image on the canvas, be that repeated sessions before the motif, or additional work in the studio after the fact (something I do a lot myself).

I am planning a couple of summer workshops here in New Hampshire at the Inn on Sunset Hill. I will announce course descriptions and their dates and as soon as I get the details worked out.


Thomas Haskett said...

Please can you explain how to use that tool, be it tongue-in-cheek or genuine! ;)

Journeyman said...

An uncle of mine had one of those machines for pleining air, when he wasn’t plening he would use it to make parts for the broken clocks people where always dumping on his doorstep. By the way it’s good to see you posting again :)


Jody Regan said...

Thanks for the history lesson. Agree, and agree!

Mary Bullock said...

Hey Stape - don't forget you are coming to Sanford Maine on the 16th of June - we are getting ready to send out our flyers.

Stapleton Kearns said...

looking forward to that! See you there!

barbara b. land of boz said...

Well said Stape, and Thanks for the post.

barbara b. land of boz said...

Well said Stape, Thanks for posting on this.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back!

Jerry said...

Glad you're back.

Jerry said...

Mr. Haskett, I believe it looks more tongue-in-groove than -in-cheek.