Sunday, September 28, 2014

Yes... But is it Plein Air?

Recently I fell victim to the argument that a plein air painting has to be painted entirely outdoors. I knew better than to believe this nonsense. And anyway, who cares? And is it any who who matters? But for whatever reason, I bowed to the pressure. This is the story of that painting.

I most enjoy working a bit large, so I took my 24x48 canvas out to the dunes, my favorite place to paint. I started at the end of July. The marsh and dune grasses were still green. I chose the two hours before sundown when the shadows create interesting patterns on the dunes. I was off to a good start.

Life intervened in August and I had to leave for a month. When I returned in September, I had to wait for good weather- we were in the afternoon thunderstorm pattern of late summer on the Gulf. When the weather cleared, I returned everyday that had similar light to my start. By now, the grasses were turning brown and gold. Fall is my favorite time of year to paint the dunes so I didn't mind adding the colors. I also had to start arriving earlier with the days growing shorter.

So, after 5 or 6 two hour sessions, the painting now stands 95% complete. So far, it's been completed entirely on the spot. I don't need to return to complete the remaining 5%. When I finish it, can it still accurately be called plein air?

At this point, I really don't care. I did learn some interesting things though.

    1- As usual, there's no substitute for painting from life. I was able to amend some earlier studio works with the lessons learned from this painting.

    2- It really wasn't necessary to haul such a large canvas out there. If my objective had been to gather information, I could have done 5 or 6 small quick studies and combined them in the studio. But then I wouldn't have had the pleasure of the salt breeze on my skin and the sounds of coastal birds and surf.

    3- I still prefer the results of a large canvas painted in multiple sessions mostly on the spot. to the less informed works painted quickly in one go.

   4- And yes, something large can be painted entirely outdoors if one feels the need to.

For more thoughts on the debate about the definition of plein air, read Eric Rhoads publisher's letter in the November 2014 issue of Plein Air Magazine. His is exactly my opinion too when it comes to defining what a plein air painting is.

How has this debate impacted your work?


  1. Oh no, not the plein air police! It is funny by their standard all of the Hudson Valley painters and many of Barbizon School landscapists and California Impressionist would not be allowed in their little group. If you investigate landscape painting prior to the twentieth century the emphasis was on working direct from nature, collecting studies, knowledge and experience. Not counting brushstrokes and making everything look like it was made of play-doh. One of my favorite painters Edgar Payne created most of his large western landscapes in his studio in Chicago. Sorry just had to throw my two cents in, need coffee………

  2. Thanks for your two cents Jim! I entirely agree! I sometimes wonder if the plein air police came out the legions of commercial artists turned painters in the 90's. Their job required them to do assignments very quickly in a kind of shorthand. I agree with you that many of the best and most loved landscape artists of the past 150 years would be thrown out of the club.

  3. This debate has always confused me. I am reading about the Hudson River School painters at the moment and have to agree with Jim. I finish a completely plein air painting once in a while but I am mostly painting plein air studies to use as reference for studio paintings this winter. Then some are started in plein air and finished from memory in the studio. Is it not plein air because I brought it indoors and put a few more strokes of paint on it? Ah well, I think I will just continue to do what I am doing. I am looking forward to seeing your painting completed!

    1. R.L. the debate makes no sense to me either. Believe it or not, even Monet had to contend with critics who said he was untruthful in saying the outdoors was his studio because he finished his works inside before sending them off to his dealers. I think the debate is just mischief making by people with their own agenda. Like you, I'll continue to turn out the best paintings I can by whatever method produces the best results.


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