Friday, December 22, 2006

What IS Plein Air Painting?

Winter Beret
8x10, oil/panel
click thumb for big pic
What constitutes plein air painting? I think most painters would consider this to be painting outdoors.* However, back before it became Fine Art Connoisseur, Plein Air Magazine enlarged the definition to include "painting from life." This included the still life, portraits and figures. Great controversy erupted over this new definition.

But the magazine was, in a sense, right. With the right circumstances, a studio experience can very much be like a plein air experience. For example, in my studio, I recently painted a self-portrait that was made 1) from life, 2) in natural light, and 3) by a huge window that makes you feel like you're sitting outdoors. This was done in the winter, and if it weren't for the electric heat and the lack of wind, I might as well have been painting outside.

Who's to say it's not a plein air painting?

Let's try an experiment. Let's paint in our car. Is this plein air?

Sure. Some very well-known plein air painters paint from inside their automobiles or specially-designed "paintmobiles." Clearly, a sheet of glass is not in itself enough to disqualify a painting from being a plein air piece.

Let's take it a step further. Stick a model in the car. Is this plein air?

It depends. The painting is made from life, under natural light and with both artist and model in the landscape. But are you painting just the model, the model in the car, or the model with the landscape behind him? The painting will undoubtedly be classified "plein air" if the landscape occupies sufficient real estate behind the model, as would any "landscape with figure" piece done from life. However, if you make the landscape insignificant or don't include it at all, then what? Let's say it's just the door and the car seat with the model. Is this plein air? Now we're getting into uncertain territory.

Based on this experiment, I'd say that the phrases "plein air" and "landscape" are so linked that you can't separate them. A still life, even if it's a pile of burgers on a picnic table, is not a plein air piece unless that picnic table has a generous portion of landscape around it and is subjugated to the landscape. The same with a portrait and a figure. Unless the landscape is first, it's not plein air.

Of course, to eliminate any disagreement, perhaps we should just call plein air painting what it really is, which is simply "outdoor painting."

Even though we've evaluated my self-portrait and have decided it is not a "plein air" piece, I've posted it here for your amusement.

*Plein air does not necessarily mean alla prima. Alla prima can be done either outdoors or in. The phrase simply means a technique of painting in which the artist completes a painting in one session. Plein air can certainly be done this way. However, there are some plein air artists -- Monet was a notorious one -- who work on a single painting over several days, returning to the same outdoor location to do so.

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