Saturday, February 28, 2009

Painting Outside the Plein Air Tradition

The other day, I mentioned a student who paints large canvases in the field. Readers have asked me how an artist can paint five or six hours and not have to wrestle with the changing light. For Peter Lewis, from St John's, Newfoundland, time is not relevant to his vision of the landscape. If the sun moves, he moves the shadows; if people come and go, he puts them in or takes them out. Peter paints outside of what I call the "plein air tradition."

The plein air tradition comes from academically-trained artists who worked in the field to gather reference material for studio paintings. Today, many of us go out to hone our observational skills or for the pure pleasure of being outside. But whatever the reason, we who paint in this tradition adhere to a few rules:
  • We select a motif, such as a tree, and build a composition around it to support that motif;
  • We use principles of linear and aerial perspective to create an illusion of reality; and finally,
  • We are sensitive the changes of lighting and weather over time. If we bring these changes to the painting unmindfully, the painting will be full of inconsistent shadows and color, thus destroying the illusion we're trying to build.
Peter will select as his point of interest the entirety of a sweeping landscape, and he composes it as one might a camera fitted with a wide-angle lens. He uses a certain amount of linear and aerial perspective to create an illusion of distance, but he is not a slave to these principles. He generally keeps his color pure and joyful, using swaths of bright yellow for highlights of trees, passages of unadulterated blue for a cool sky. As people come and go, they are likely to be placed in the painting. Peter takes great pleasure in creating a time-lapse painting of the events that make up his day in the field.

For a traditional plein air painter as myself, I enjoy looking at the freshness of his pieces. By the way, today he has gone off to the Grand Canyon. I can't wait to see what he comes back with!

Here are a few from this week. They are all either 3x3 or larger. (All by permission.) For more on Peter, visit:

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