Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Seduction and Peril of Plein Air Painting

Red Rocks Revisited - 8x10 oil - studio painting based on below reference

Red Rocks - 5x7 pastel - original reference

Fields and woods, streams and creeks and hilltops—I've spent much of my life exploring the landscape, either on foot or in a car, and with camera or paint brush.  I love the outdoors so much that painting en plein air is a natural fit.  In fact, it's hard for me to paint anyway but outdoors!

But there is an unspoken peril to plein air painting.  If you take to it (and not everyone does), then the more you do of it, the more you want to do of it.  It taps into a battery of energy that any plein air painter will agree is powerfully seductive.  On a nice day, it can be like being hooked up to a pair of jumper cables.  And even on a not-so-nice day you'll get recharged, though it might be more like a trickle charge.  Either way, it's addictive.

Despite all that, I sometimes feel I'm not developing artistically as quickly as I'd like.  As much as I enjoy the outdoors, time and weather put a limit to what I can accomplish.  Design seems to be the first thing that suffers, followed quickly by color harmony.  It's so easy to go with the tried-and-true with regards to these—or worse, to ignore them at the cost of "capturing the moment."  (How many of us wish we had taken more time to redesign nature and move that tree a few feet over to the left?)  In the studio, however, I can take as much time as I wish to not just avoid errors but to explore new design and color ideas.

Before this modern age of plein air festivals and plein air purists, who think a painting started in the field must be completed in the field, the landscape painter typically led a more balanced life.  Part of the time was spent in the field, collecting reference material such as drawings, color sketches and handwritten notes and learning about the subject from life.  The artist then headed to the studio to review this material and to work on the hard issues of design and color before creating a more considered and finished piece.

Lately, I've started doing more study-to-studio.  Sometimes the studio work isn't anything major; it might just be correcting a design flaw.  Or maybe I did a field sketch in pastel, and I want to try it in oil, which I feel gives me more control over color nuance.  (For example, as in the paintings at the top of this post.) Occasionally, though, I want to create a larger piece that incorporates more than a single scene, and this takes more planning and thought.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.  What drives you into the studio? Also, if you have a favorite process for taking field studies and using them for studio paintings, I'd love to hear about it!

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