Monday, March 14, 2016

Define: "Painting in the Spirit of Plein Air"

2014 Grand Canyon Celebration of Art
Invitational Plein Air Painting Event
Opening Night

When I jury artwork into an exhibition, I'm always given guidelines by the show committee.  Besides what you might expect, such as evaluating design, color use and skill, I may be asked to consider other factors.  Recently, I judged a show for a plein air group.  One factor was whether the work had been painted "in the spirit of plein air."

Looking at technical aspects is objective and relatively easy.  I actually work with a checklist.  But "in the spirit of plein air" seems more subjective and slippery.  What does this mean, exactly?  Does the statement have to do with technique?  Or does it live more in the realm of philosophy or possibly even ethics?

For shows and competitions, it's usually a question of ethics.  It often comes up at plein air competitions, especially among painters who are new to them.  The rules state that work needs to be painted en plein air.  Does this mean 100%?  What if you like to take your work back to the studio for a few adjustments?  And how about the painter who makes a quick block-in but returns to the studio for the bulk of his efforts?

I generally believe in holding to the spirit of the law rather than to the letter.  I'm not going to count outdoor brush strokes and indoor brush strokes.  If your heart was in the right place, it doesn't really matter to me.  (I must add, however, that for shows and competitions, I judge by the rules; if I'm told the work needs to be 100% painted outdoors, that's what I look for.  And, yes, I can usually tell.)

Having your heart in the right place, to my mind, means that you took your paintbox into the landscape with the intent to observe, record, experience and possibly make a statement.  It's about going into the field to harvest from it things you can't get from a photograph or from memory alone.

"In the spirit of plein air" also has to do with technique.   Plein air pieces have a looser and thus fresher look, mostly due to the rapidity with which the paintings must be made.  Color tends to be more accurate, especially if the painter has a good eye coupled with good color mixing skills.  On the other hand, color may be less accurate but more interesting in a way that can't be invented from a photo.  Design also tends to be weak, mostly because the painter is more concerned with capturing a sense of the moment rather than building a good composition.

For the experienced eye, it's usually easy to tell if a painting was based on a photograph.  The painting may have shadows darker than any real shadow could possibly be; a photograph distorts the value range.  It tends to have more detail; a photograph offers an all-you-can-eat buffet, and it's hard to resist sampling everything.  It often has an overworked quality, too; a photograph gives you plenty of time to overwork a painting.

Granted, a painter with much outdoor experience can correct these tell-tales.  Also, one shouldn't forget that a painter may be making a statement:  the plein air piece may have intentionally dark shadows, lots of detail or tight brushwork.  But these rare circumstances just make the judging all the more interesting.

I've judged many shows and events over the years.  If your group needs a judge, please let me know.  I am also happy to teach a workshop for you in conjunction with your event.

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