Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Purpose-Driven Plein Air

Photo by Trina Stephenson

I've been thinking about plein air painting and its reason for being.   Emerson wrote:
... if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being.
One of the pleasures of painting in the Great Outdoors is, indeed, the opportunity to see beauty, and that may seem reward enough.  But for the professional painter, or for the painter looking to improve his craft, a greater reason is required.

Why would anyone seek to paint outdoors beyond enjoying the occasional aesthetic experience?

In my plein air painting workshops, I talk about having a goal when one goes out to paint.  I mention four possibilities:

  • To explore a new landscape, with the goal of expanding one's skill set with, say, an unfamiliar geology or species of tree;
  • To gather reference material, with the goal of having enough for creating a studio painting;
  • To improve one's knowledge of the landscape by direct observation in the field, where one might, for example, study the temperature relationship of light and shadow; or
  • To create a finished painting (a difficult task!)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, sometimes one embarks on such a purpose-driven approach at the expense of the aesthetic experience.  But by keeping the joy of life at the forefront, as one might carry a lamp in the dark, the experience won't be lost.  Together, these two moments - the aesthetic and the utilitarian - might be joined together into a greater whole, making for a richer experience for both painter and viewer.  Success helps the plein air painter evolve beyond mere craftsman to a true artist.

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