Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What the Heck is Plein Air Anyhow?

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Keith Bond ran an article on FASO’s blog wondering what constitutes a plein air work. He said that there are several definitions, mostly referring what percentage of the work had been done in the field, and that each had some validity. He also said that many studio pieces when shown, are sometimes categorized as plein air. Really?

Well……here goes a can of worms…

I think (read in personal opinion here) that the minute you get more than fifty percent of the work executed in the studio, you now definitely have a STUDIO piece. To me, the percentage needed of ‘in field work’ to be a ‘plein air’ is much higher, more around 80% to 90%. Now before you find fault with this, understand that some exhibitions demand that the entire piece be completed on site for a piece to be a plein air. There are times when the underlying paint makes telephone lines, boat moorings, staircase railings and the like impossible to paint until the bottom layer has gone a bit tacky. Tacky, meaning sticky, not a condition of the quality of the painting itself. There are those pieces whose finishing flourishes need to be completed after the fact because the rain, snow, wind, hail (add your personal preference for natural disaster) has made finishing in the field an impossibility. This is understandable. I have shelved more pieces than I care to think about because I could not finish in the field. I am waiting for similarly lit days to complete the paintings. Now THAT is plein air. Being there in the flesh. Whether you are on a chair, under a canopy, sheltered by a car, transported by car, truck, cart, bicycle, horse or mule is immaterial. It means being there, on site, in the act of painting.

Early Morning Crystal Cove
6x8 Oil on board - Available
But if the percentage of the painting left incomplete is so high that it requires an equal or near equal amount of time in the studio to achieve completion, then rest assured it is NOT a plein air piece. Yes you may have started it in plein air, and perhaps it still retains some glimmer of the authenticity that plein air observation imparts, but it is not plein air. The smell of the flowers, the taste of rain on the way, the rising tide, the blow of the wind threatening to blow over your whole rig all lends a sense of reality to the work that the control of a studio, however comfortable, cannot furnish. Think of that Subaru commercial. That guy has it right regardless of what you think of his work.

Afternoon Crystal Cove
6x8 Oil on board - Available
And then there is the light. The crucial element. So you say you have good photos. Good for you. They are not enough. Your own eyes are so very much better at discerning the infinitesimal differences of value from lights to darks in a scene, that no typical camera, digital or otherwise, can compete. Unless you are bracketing a shot, you are diluting the darks into black, or blowing out the lights to white. I mentioned this to a painter who swears she is such an avid photographer, and she did not know what I was talking about. To expect painters to do this is an awfully unreal expectation from people who think their phones are too complex to operate. Yes you can paint from a photo. Will you get the same results? No.  Undeniably, NO.  You lose color in the shadows. You lose temperature shifts of color in the transitions. You lose the unique quality of the light itself.

So to Keith Bond, I say yes there is a point at which a piece can no longer be considered a plein air painting. It’s when it is not painted out of doors. Literal translation from the French: en plein air = in the open air, the outdoors. In other words, not within the confines, comfort and limitations of the studio.

I recently drove 700 miles to take a Greg LaRock workshop in Laguna CA. Yup. That far. And what did we do? We turned our backs on the water, one day, to paint the beachside cottages at Crystal Cove. I could hear the surf, taste salt, pour on the sunscreen, hear the gulls, and here I was, painting the buildings. Wow. I learned a lot. Greg is an unbelievably good painter and a wonderful teacher. He is well spoken, gets his point across and teaches with a natural gift. He teaches plein air. In the field. With the sound of the water crashing in your ears. Creating a feeling that is impossible to replicate in a building.
Favorite quote of the day:
When painting and sketching plein-air I sink into the landscape, and am attuned witness to its mood and beauty.                                                                                    (Dianne Bersea)


  1. Hi Louise, You know I am a studio painter and I think you are right on. There is a difference and we are looking for different things. Victoria C.

  2. Good paintings. You captured the light perfectly. You must have been a pleasure for him to have in his class.
    Interesting, the debate on plein air. I venture to add that only those who do it truly understand the value it adds to the artist skill level.