Why plein air

If you can paint en plein air, you can paint anything else you can draw.
Teddi-Jann Covell, me, and Truth Hawk model appropriate gear for winter painting. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
In some of our coastal harbors, plein air painting approaches performance art. We spend more time answering questions than we do painting. For new painters, that can be unnerving. But Rockport is the least-visited, most-beautiful harbor on our section of coast. In Rockport in March, our only visitors are people eating sandwiches in their trucks, or the occasional dog-walker. That makes Rockport the perfect place to start the new painting season.
Finished paintings by students Mary Whitney and Teddi-Jann Covell. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
This post revolves around the photos; I wrote it largely for the amusement of my southern readers, who perhaps can’t conceive of painting in freezing weather. And yet it’s done regularly, not just here but in Vermontand upstate New York. My friends in Greater Rochester Plein Air Painters are already out testing the ice at Mendon Ponds. And they’re probably already out in Indiana and the Cascades and, for all I know, in Anchorage, AK, too. Plein airpainters merely tolerate indoor painting; our brush hands are happiest outdoors. It’s all about the right clothing and materials.
(By the way, while being physically fit makes plein air painting easier, physical disability is not an absolute barrier. I’ve had students with walkers in both my weekly classes and my annual workshop. We just select more accessible painting locations.)
Ed Buonvecchio with two pro tips: insulated LL Bean boots and his cap over his toque. You need a warm head and a sun visor in late winter. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
Like most art students, my painting education was skewed toward figure drawing and painting. I grew up thinking the human form was the apotheosis of painting. Since the Renaissance, the western art canon had a hierarchy of genres, which rated the importance of pictures as follows:
  1. History, including all that allegorical stuff;
  2. Portrait;
  3. Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
  4. Landscape;
  5. Animals;
  6. Still life.
Robert Lichtman doubled his hat too, but was able to paint bare-handed. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
If we were to draw up a modern hierarchy it would probably read:

  1. Abstraction (a big label including a lot of categories)
  2. Symbolism
  3. Surrealism
  4. Outsider art
  5. Representational art
  6. Plein air

Finished work by Colleen Lowe, Ed Buonvecchio and David Blanchard. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
And yet, having worked in most of the traditional categories, I think plein air is in fact the hardest form of painting. It requires the painter to pull one big concept out of a vast landscape, and stick with it. It teaches you to simplify, simplify, to focus your view, and narrow your goals.
Mary Whitney painting harbor ice. Photo courtesy Jennifer Johnson.
I have a current student who didn’t realize this would be primarily a plein air class when she signed up. I have no problems encouraging her to stay. When you master en plein air, you can then paint anything else that you can draw. The reverse is decidedly not true.
A note: For those of you who have been following the fortunes of the waterlogged dinghy in Rockport harbor, it was off its mooring yesterday. It may have dropped below the surface, but since the harbormaster is resetting the buoys for spring, I think she probably brought it in.

A common footman in the army of art

Plein air painting isn’t highbrow, but it speaks to my soul.
La casa de los abuelitos, by Carol L. Douglas
“You’re lucky to love to do something that people love,” Clif Travers told me soon after we’d met. He meant that sincerely. It’s easier to sell landscape paintings than the large-scale installation piece he’s working on.
The earliest known “pure landscapes” (with no human figures) are Minoanmurals dating from around 1500 BC. Landscape flowered in Rome, Egypt and China. It died out in western art and was rediscovered in the Renaissance.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas
In China, the mountain-water ink painting was traditionally the most valued form of picture. Here in the west, landscape occupied a low position in the accepted hierarchy of genres, which went:
  1. History, including all that allegorical stuff;
  2. Portrait;
  3. Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
  4. Landscape;
  5. Animals;
  6. Still life.
This hierarchy was established in 16th century Italy. It elevated those things which rendered the universal essence of things (imitare) over the mere mechanical copying of appearances (ritrarre). While the Impressionists did much to knock this on its head, there’s still a decided whiff of lowbrow to landscape painting, particularly the plein air variety. I think it’s because people actually like it.
Some days it rains, by Carol L. Douglas
The 17th century Dutch Golden Agepainters were among the first artists with middle-class customers, so it’s no surprise that they painted lots of landscape. But they were conflicted about it. Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was the century’s most important art critic. He called landscape paintings “the common footmen in the army of art.” But he also recognized that landscape “provides scope for artistic freedom, for coloristic virtuosity and for chance: for a dialogue between Mother Nature and the artist’s own innate ability.”
It’s surprisingly difficult to find data on what genres of art sell the best, but I did find this top-ten list from Art Business Today. It’s for the UK art market, but ours isn’t much different:
  1. Traditional landscapes
  2. Local views
  3. Modern or semi-abstract landscapes
  4. Abstracts
  5. Dogs
  6. Figure studies (excluding nudes)
  7. Seascapes, harbor, and beach scenes
  8. Wildlife
  9. Impressionistic landscapes
  10. Nudes

Beach Grass (Goosefare Brook) by Carol L. Douglas
Obviously, none of us invented landscape painting, but each of us invents ourselves as landscape painters. When we start out, there’s absolutely no market for our work. We create that market through dialogue. We produce our first paintings, gauge the audience’s reaction (through sales and critiques), and then refine our message and reenter the fray with new work. That’s an ongoing process throughout our careers. It’s no different from many other lines of work.
There are artists working out there in splendid isolation, not caring what the audience thinks, but they’re very rare. For most of us, painting is a dialogue, and the other half of the dialogue is the buying public.
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
Most artists don’t shape their work because a certain kind of landscape painting will sell better (although we are influenced by our peers and gallerists). But the best feedback we get is often in the form of a purchase.
I don’t paint en plein air because I think it’s somehow higher on a hierarchy of landscape. I do it because it appeals to me on a soul level. My friend Brad Marshall once said, “My clients don’t care if I did it in the studio or out. They only care about the quality of the work itself.” Plein air is not, in itself, a virtue. It’s only when it helps the painting become transcendent that it matters.

Sea Captains Carousing

It’s an iconic New England painting, and it’s fun to imagine with your friends in it.
Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, oil on bed ticking, 1755, John Greenwood, courtesy St. Louis Art Museum. Greenwood painted himself in the doorway, leaving with a candle.

Last night I had a glass of wine with my pal Cathy. She doesn’t want to learn to paint, but she likes to sail, so she asked me about my Age of Sail workshop aboard the schooner American Eagle. In the way of small towns, her husband knows Captain John Foss, and remarked about what a great story-teller he is. That’s true of sailors in general, but he’s a wry master of the art form.

I got home to this essay about iconic New England paintings. It includes the wonderful Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, 1755, by John Greenwood. Since moving to Maine I’ve gotten to know a number of sea captains, and even more lobstermen, and it’s wonderful to imagine them in their tricornes, dancing around in this painting.
Sea Captains Carousing is what art historians call a genre painting. These are scenes from everyday life: markets, homes, inns, brothels, churches, streets. Often, they’re moralizing, as in the work of English painter William Hogarth. Those fantastic Flemish and Dutch food paintings? They’re genre paintings, and they instruct us on the transience of luxury and the perils of gluttony.
Portrait of Richard Waldron, oil on wood, 1751, John Greenwood, courtesy New England Historical Society
Just to be confusing, the word genre also means in painting what it means in other arts—a type of subject matter. In fact, classical art had a hierarchy of genres, formulated by the Italians. It persisted right up to the modern era:
  1. History, religious and allegorical painting
  2. Portraits
  3. Genre paintings
  4. Landscapes
  5. Animals
  6. Still life
Greenwood was raised and trained in the hinterlands of the British Empire (Boston), so he didn’t have the advantages of such classical ideas. Still, he knew there was money in portraits, and he executed hundreds of the things.
Unless they emigrated from England as adults, most of our earliest painters were self-taught. They emulated British styles of painting, which they knew through prints and the works of émigré artists. This was true of both primitive painters like William Jennys or sophisticated artists like John Singleton Copley.
John Richard Comyns of Hylands, Essex, with His Daughters, 1775, John Greenwood, courtesy Yale Center for British Art 
Greenwood had the advantage of an apprenticeship with self-taught engraver Thomas Johnston. In addition to portraits, Greenwood painted many satirical works. Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam is the best known of them. Surinam was a Dutch colony in South America, now the Republic of Suriname. Greenwood lived there for five years, during which time he painted 115 portraits. He never returned to North America, traveling east to Amsterdam, Paris, and London, where he eventually settled.
Portrait of the painter Tako Jajo Jelgersma, c. 1750-58, John Greenwood, courtesy Rijksmuseum.
The beauty of Sea Captains Carousing is in what its subjects would later become in the history of Rhode Island. In addition to many prominent merchants, it includes Declaration of Independence signatory Stephen Hopkins, Governor Joseph Wanton, Admiral Esek Hopkins, and Governor Nicholas Cooke.
It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, or at Genesee Valley this summer.