Friday, May 18, 2007

Refining Plein Air Work

It's only in recent times that the "plein air as performance art" method of painting has become popular and, to many minds, the only way to paint when outdoors. We can attribute this purist — or in some extreme cases, zealot — approach to the French Impressionists. They're the ones who would go out, paint in a two-hour frenzy, and call their "impressions" of the landscape finished. But traditionally, going back to the Hudson River School painters and beyond, painters went out to create sketches. These sketches, some in charcoal with scrawled notes about color, others in pastel, watercolor or even oil, were not considered worthy of exhibition. Instead, the artists intended for them to be merely field notes upon which larger, more time-intensive studio pieces would be based.

Today, many artists still take this traditional approach. Others, who paint mostly en plein air but don't cross the line from being purists to zealots, will take their sketches to the studio and refine them. Rather than creating an entirely new work, they will take what they did in the field and refine or enhance it. I almost always end up refining my work in the studio. It's rare when that "performance piece" turns out to be satisfactory. My refinements run the gamut from adding a single stroke to wiping out whole sections and repainting them. (More the former; much less the latter.)

I offer a painting I did last week, "Spring Comes to Snug Cove." I went out to sketch apple trees in bloom, but as the late spring still hadn't given what I was hoping for, I settled on sketching clouds and a view of the cliffs near Snug Cove. Perhaps because I wasn't emotionally involved with the scene at the start, I analyzed the scene with detached interest and did a good job of pinning it down. As I worked, the scene began to excite me, my involvement grew, and I realized that my analysis was "right on." I was very pleased with the painting when I got it home.

But after a day on the "viewing mantle," I saw a problem. The two humps that make up the cliff on the left were identical in roundness and size. I needed to vary one so my eye wouldn't be drawn to that unintentional symmetry (even though it was really there!) So, to the left hump I changed the grassy edge, added more fallen rocks and a tiny bit of blue-gray for sky color. This tiny refinement escaped me in the field, and it was necessary to spend some time in the studio to make it a better painting. If a larger refinement was needed, I wouldn't have hesitated to take a big brush and wipe out whole sections.

Here are the before and after closeups of those two humps, followed by the final version. (And, as always, you can click on the small images for a larger picture.)



Final Version: SOLD "Spring Comes to Snug Cove" 9x12, pastel

 

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