Friday, April 17, 2015

The Plein Air Convention- I swear I'll make it next year!

Sunshine Through the Oaks - Jack Wilkinson Smith

I wish I could be with all the artists enjoying the Plein Air Convention out in California, but I can't. Life's challenges have landed me far from home and studio without possibility of travel. So I'm consoling myself this week, studying the works of past California Impressionists.

Every time I look at early plein air paintings, I wonder what it is that makes them look so different from today's. I don't think it's the expertise. There are many very accomplished plein air painters today turning out visually stunning work. But these older paintings always make me wish I could wander into them and experience for myself what these artists saw and felt that made them so able to capture a sense of place and time with such depth. I can feel the spirit of the places they portrayed. Could it just be that they didn't hurry the piece? Or is it that the sense of community among artists they enjoyed,was especially conducive to their creative genius?

I have a thing about California Impressionism,  - the colors, the light, the dense pieces of paint so different from the more diffuse shapes of French Impressionism, the spiritually of it, the love for the land, the guileless honesty of the works.There are so many artists I could focus on, but these three works are by Jack Wilkinson Smith. His paintings of surf and rocks, full of force and vitality immediately caught my attention when I first came upon them in an art book.His home base was in southern California but he traveled throughout California painting all kinds of terrain.
I studied this next one to see what I like about it.

Deserted Corral - Jack Wilkinson Smith
All of today's plein air masters talk about the need to break up a shape into varying color temperatures.But it seems to my eye that this work, like others from this era, has a more complex pattern of subtle temperature and value changes. It leaves the viewer with more to look at on the canvas surface, without interfering with the integrity of the whole. The type of air hanging over the day is also really well depicted. Look at the difference from front to back of the painting. Notice too the way the color scheme is basically two complementaries- red and green. There are bright touches of color where a more timid painter would never place them, like on the outlines of the peaks on the left. There's plenty of variety in the colors but it's very harmonious.

Winter's Mantle - Jack Wilkinson Smith 
Here's a snow scene with the complementary color scheme of blue and orange. Even the greens in it are turned towards orange or blue.Look at how the singe bright spots of color, as well as the zig zag lines, bring the eye right back into the mountain peak.There's a single spot of bright orange in the middle of dull orange on the bush to the right. Above and slightly to the left, the tree top and tree trunk are lit up - the only lit up tree trunk in the whole scene - Next there's a spot of bright green in the tree tops in the center back, and finally the sun lit plane of snow on the peak. The energy of the brushstrokes fills the whole painting with a feeling of movement and nature's  sounds.

If your tax refund will put a bit of spare change in your pocket, all three of these paintings are available at Bonhams spring auction of California and Western Paintings on April 28th.


  1. Great post! You give a lot of food for thought. Thanks for sharing! Hope you make it to the Plein Air Convention next year. I hope to make it one day myself!

    1. Thank you Renee! I'm glad your're finally getting out to paint again! I hope you do make it to the convention. It would be great to finally meet!

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you Sue! Glad you enjoyed it. Look up his work. You'll find a lot of inspiring examples, but strangely no book on him.


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