Authentically Human! Not Written by AI!
All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Winter Fire

One great thing about my second-floor studio is that I have several windows with interesting views of different subjects. For an artist who paints primarily outdoors, winter weather can be an obstacle, and having windows offers a way to paint without having to be in the wind. (After last night's snow and with today's wind, the windchill is 14 degrees.)

"Winter Fire" (8x10, oil/panel) is just one of my views, and I painted it today. It's the old horse chestnut, standing toe-deep in snow beside a hedge of fireweed. In summer, the fireweed bursts with colourful spikes of red-violet. Now that we've moved into winter, the fireweed bursts with colour again -- deep maroon and russset in the shadows, but flaming orange and yellow in the low, late afternoon sunshine. It's a festive view for New Year's Eve. Happy New Year!

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.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Why I Paint Small

I remember reading one of Emile Gruppé's incredible books recently, and in it, he recommended that the beginning painter paint no smaller than 16x20. This bit of advice blew me away. I was painting 8x10s, 9x12s and, very occasionally, an 11x14. Even a 9x12 was a stretch for me.

His point was that a large canvas gives the artist room to swing his arm in. Your strokes become more rhythmic, and they have more of a feeling of continuity and smoothness. Small canvases restrict the arm, and strokes become choppy, and if you're painting a tree, you're apt to stop short of the edge of the canvas and break the rhythm that makes a tree.

Good points.

However, there's a certain economy that comes with painting small. You use smaller -- and thus, cheaper -- brushes and a heck of a lot less paint. When a 8x10 goes for only a few hundred bucks (with an expensive frame on it), you're already squeezing your profit margin so tight it squeaks. But there's more to it. I can paint an 8x10 in one hour and a 9x12 in two hours. A 9x12 wipes me out, and I have barely enough energy left to pack up the tripod and drive home. Anything bigger, and I'd have to call a cab. (Good luck, where I paint!)

But you know, if old Emile could do it, then so could I. Bigger brushes, more paint -- got 'em. Raise my prices if I have to. Take a Thermos of coffee and half a chocolate cake to keep me going.

I lugged my French easel out with a 12x16 with my #12 flats and extra paint and thinner. And I made a painting.

Here's an interesting observation. Time compresses when you are "in the zone," as we say. You can paint for one hour, two hours -- even three hours, which is what that 12x16 took me -- and for the painter, the time seems the same. Maybe thirty minutes. Of course, you're beat more at the end of three hours than at the end of two, so there is some sort of objective measure of the energy spent. But while you're painting, it sure seems effortless, and especially if you've got big brushes, a big palette and lots of paint laid out.

Here's one more observation. After doing a few of these larger canvases (which still aren't as large as old Emile wanted me to paint), doing the 8x10s and 9x12s again took about as much effort as putting on your shoes. They came so naturally to me, and I really was painting better thanks to the exercise of painting large.

So, I still paint small. But now and then I'll make a big one, just to keep the muscles stretched.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Plein Air - Not for Everybody

I taught a lot of workshops last summer, and I ran into all kinds of students. Some had purchased their first paints -- ever -- just for my workshop. They didn't even know what colors to buy, and they were glad to have me help choose. Others, Sunday painters who find time to paint only when the family is out shopping, came to me so they could get better, fast. Others had been painting professionally for years and wanted a break from what they usually do and stretch their horizons.

Among all these groups were many who knew little or nothing about painting outdoors, but who wanted to learn.

What possesses a person to fancy himself an outdoor painter? I always thought of myself as a camper, but after a few years of flooded-out tents, mosquitoes trapped in my sleeping bag and camp stoves that failed me a hundred miles away from the nearest restaurant, I learned something about myself. I'm not a camper. (I don't care much for hotels, either, but that's another story.)

In a similar way, some artists aren't outdoor painters. It's not just the paint that gets smeared on the driver's seat of the car, or the mosquitoes and the blackflies, or the wind and intermittent drizzle. Sure, these things contribute, but I've always found that once I'm "in the zone," as we painters like to say, they are inconsequential. More important is your approach to painting.

It all has to do with time and focus. An experienced outdoor painter learns quickly to eliminate the 359 degrees of the panoramic landscape and focus on the 1 degree in front of him. He learns to establish color and value quickly. If he's no good at judging color accurately, then he makes a choice about what colors to use and sticks with it, no matter what.

I like to think of my painting as a "performance piece." I do my best to exercise my skill, but like a concert pianist, I have no opportunity for revision. Time, and the accompanying shifting of light and shadow, of weather and tide, does not permit it.

Some artists aren't performers. Making judgments rapidly and sticking by them makes them uncomfortable to the point of frustration. On the other hand, there's nothing more pleasurable to them than the more contemplative practice of laying down a stroke, considering it, and if it doesn't fit, wiping it out. They are more like the studio musician who enjoys the freedom to try different chords, different tempos, to see what's best before recording.

There's nothing wrong at all with one temperament or the other.

I encourage my students who discover that they don't have the temperament for painting outdoors to consider the week with me all part of Continuing Education. I want them to go back to their studios, enriched from the experience but also satisfied in the knowledge that how they do things is just another way of making perfectly good art.

Monday, December 11, 2006

First Snow

Our first real snow came to the Canadian Maritimes a few days ago. It wasn't much, but still, it was a couple of inches. I've been waiting for just such a snow to paint in. The snow brings out the deep reds in the brush and the greens in the bark of the maple trees. So today, I bundled up and trudged out with the easel. Here is "The Flagg House in Winter," 9x12, oil/panel:

The temperature today was 37 degrees. I wore all the winter clothes I had, including my big Sorel snowboots. Although most of me stayed quite warm, my feet became uncomfortably chilled by the end of the session. I attribute this to the cold ground and the fact that I was wearing cotton socks, which are notorious for holding moisture. Tomorrow, I'm buying a set of those insulated overalls you see construction workers wearing in the winter as well as some wool socks. I'm also buying a bunch of those little heat packets I can drop in my boots. (These are the chemical packets that generate heat when exposed to air.) I've used these when cross-country skiing, and they're a life-saver!