Friday, October 21, 2016

En plein air

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I’m not a huge fan of eating al fresco, especially when it means going out on the town. The idea of wearing sunglasses when addressing an entrée does not appeal to me. I don’t think I should have to endure wind or bugs or diesel fumes just so I can sit in a plastic chair under an umbrella and eat a $15 salad. The same logic should apply to leaving a perfectly good studio to paint in the out-of-doors. It should.

I made my first foray into the elements to paint on a not-so-perfect day. Perhaps I should have waited for a totally sunny day with a slight breeze – you know: The kind of breeze that smells like one of those little pine tree cutouts. It was, in fact, a windy day. The clouds were ominous, and it started sprinkling in a sideways sort of way. I held my only brush in one hand and a flapping palette in the other. My leg was hooked over the easel’s center support so it wouldn’t fly into the next county. But I made an ugly, little painting in spite of it all.

“Plein air” painting is suddenly all the rage. Again. I think it’s French for “I walked through a half-mile of mud to this spot and all I can think of is Cheetos.”
Two artistic powerhouses crossed paths while painting en plein air.
“Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood”
by John Singer Sargent. 1885. (Tate Gallery, London)

Perhaps it’s the artsy-fartsy title that makes it so trendy, but in reality plein air painting has always been done. Painting outdoors, at one time, was done to bolster work executed later in the studio. An artist would make a relatively quick color study of a landscape, then spend oodles of time on a much grander version in the comfort of a studio. It wasn’t until the dawn of Impressionism that artists saw painting en plein air as an end in itself, and not simply a means to a greater end.

There is a golden nugget within that concept. The freshness of painting on-site cannot be duplicated in the studio. It simply can’t. The same is usually true of live drawings – the spontaneity of recording a moment in all its rawness is, in itself, the real beauty.

Plein air painting is no longer limited to a solitary artist lugging a compact easel into a lonely setting. There are group excursions and competitions and trips abroad to do nothing more than paint outdoors. Of course, the lure is not found in places like the farmer’s field behind my house. That’s why the missions of California, for example, are a prime destination. Oh, and don’t forget dull locations like the French countryside. And Portugal. And Spain. And Italy.

There is something annoyingly attractive to gathering art supplies and going outside, no matter where that may be. Like camping, it forces the artist to be choosey about what is absolutely necessary for the excursion. One cannot drag the kitchen sink out into the woods. The same holds true for all 900 brushes that might be lurking in a studio. I took one brush along on my first attempt. I took two on the second try.

I’m now thinking about a much larger brush – one that keeps a sharp edge so I can use it like two brushes. It might look like I’m seriously considering yet another trip into not-so-forgiving elements among bugs and blowing dirt, just to paint a mediocre image. In fact, I am.

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