Why is plein air painting significant?

It’s immediate and visceral, in a way that incorporates the lessons of abstract-expressionism, but it’s also grounded in reality. In short, it’s painting for our times.

Spring Greens, oil on canvasboard, 8X10, $652 in a plein air frame.

Last week Mary Byrom asked me, “Why is plein air painting significant?” I was at a loss for an answer. Then she sent me this essay, What’s the Point of Painting from Life? It sets out a compelling argument for why we should paint from real objects, rather than from photos. I hope my students all read it. But it glances off Mary’s question, rather than answering it.

There’s a lot of dreck in the plein air movement. It’s hindered by its sheer volume. But that was also true in the Dutch Golden Ageand other periods in art history. Dreck is the inevitable consequence of lots of work, but that’s also what gives us brilliance. Time winnows out the worst paintings.

Belfast harbor, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, $1594 in a narrow black presentation frame.

Plein air painting is largely ignored by the contemporary Academy, by which I mean our university and museum culture. It’s a movement of the people, and it takes the artist down a few pegs, from intellectual to craftsman. Its training is done mostly in the old atelier system, by which I mean the workshops and classrooms of working artists. That’s in contrast to the university system, which teaches kids to be post-modern artists.

Our university system has no interest in teaching people to paint. Until the explosion of interest in plein air, traditional painting was perilously close to being a lost art. Yes, there are colleges in America teaching it, but they are rare and absurdly expensive.

Early Spring on Beech Hill, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 in a plein air frame.

In the twentieth century, meaning in painting took a radical turn. It stopped being about symbols and became about the artist’s own psyche. Odilon Redon, for example, wrote that he wanted to place “the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” Pablo Picasso famously said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” Everything Picasso painted was autobiographical.

From there it was a short jump to the position of the later 20th century, when meaning was banished from art entirely. It became about form and color, rather than anything the artist wanted to say.

The Woodshed, 11×14, oil on birch, $869 unframed.

Stubbornly, the human mind has an insatiable desire for narrative and meaning—both in the telling and in the listening. It’s a great relief for all of us to leave the nihilism of the 20th century behind.

Plein air painting surged just as we Americans were learning that we can’t take our natural world for granted. In my lifetime the population of the United States has doubled. Fields and farms that I roamed as a child are now housing developments. Streams have been fouled, natural reserves of fish and wildlife depleted. Plein air painting is a both a record of these changes and a plea for the natural world.

The rise of plein air painting is inextricably tied to the development of internet culture, where museums and universities are no longer arbiters. There’s been an explosion of painting workshops, classes, books and videos to teach painting to the masses. And what do people want? Not abstraction, but representational painting grounded in real life.

I studied figure because I was taught that it was the most difficult genre, and the basis of the most important kinds of painting. After a lifetime of drawing and painting, I know that’s not true. Landscape is the most challenging, and therefore the most instructive, form of painting. It’s immediate and visceral, in a way that incorporates the lessons of abstract-expressionism, but it’s also grounded in reality. In short, it’s painting for our times.

The meaning of (some) art

Still life occupies the lowest rung among genres, but it’s also invested with deep meaning—whether or not the artist intends it.

Roses dans un vase de verre, 1883, Édouard Manet, private collection

If archeologists are correct, the objects painted on walls in Egyptian tombs are grave goods meant to go with the deceased into the afterlife. Their meaning is clear. You take into the afterlife what you valued and needed in life.

Still-Life Found in the Tomb of Menna, c. 14thcentury BC, courtesy The Yorck Project 

In western art, there has always been a spoken or unspoken hierarchy of genres, with still life occupying the lowest niche. In Greco-Roman villas, ‘vulgar’ subjects like fruits and vegetables adorned walls and floors. By the Middle Ages, still life was beginning to appear as side notes in more serious paintings. The Northern Renaissance painters treated still life as its own form, with fantastical flower paintings. These pieces seem like overblown bouquets to us, but they in fact depicted flora from different countries at peak bloom. They reflected the dawning European interest in science.

Flowers in a Wooden Vessel, 1606-1607, Jan Brueghel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum

The Dutch Golden Age painters did much to improve the reputation of still life painting. Still life’s job was to reinforce social values. Vanitas painting expounds the futility of worldly pleasures. There is much overlap in symbols with memento mori, which reminds the viewer of the inevitability of death.

Vanitas with a skull, c. 1671, Philippe de Champaigne, courtesy Musée de Tessé 

Common symbols included skulls, time pieces and flowers, as in Philippe de Champaigne’s stark Vanitas, above. Rotten fruit and insects meant decay. Musical instruments told us that life is ephemeral. Fruit, flowers and butterflies spoke to the same truth. My favorite symbol is the lemon, which, like life, is beautiful to look at but bitter to the taste. (Oddly, coffee—which was brought in large scale to Europe by the Dutch East India Company—played no part in still life iconography, despite its addictive qualities.)

Take Your Choice, 1885, John F. Peto, courtesy National Gallery of Art

Trompe-l’œil (‘deceive the eye’) has been with us as long as artists have painted, but a specific subset of it—objects on a wall or within a frame—were painted for narrative effect. Books, letters, guns, tools, dead game, playing cards and other art ‘tacked’ up on a wall were popular themes through the 19th century.

Les Anemones, c. 1900-1910 Odilon Redon, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art 

In the twentieth century, meaning took a radical turn. It stopped being about symbols and became about the artist’s own psyche. Odilon Redon, for example, wrote that he wanted to place “the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” Pablo Picasso famously said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” Everything Picasso painted was autobiographical.

Still life, 1938, Lee Krasner, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

From there it was a short jump to the position of the later 20th century, when meaning was banished from art entirely. It became about form and color, rather than anything the artist wanted to say.

Despite this, the artist’s own viewpoint inevitably creeps in. Édouard Manet was unfortunately afflicted with syphilis, which was in his time incurable. In his mid-forties, he developed what he thought were circulatory problems, but which was really the locomotor ataxia of end-stage syphilis. Confined to his bed, he could only paint the smallest still lives, but these are exquisite. The one at the top of this page is believed to be his last painting. Nominally a simple vase of roses, it is redolent with the grief and questioning of the end of life.

Reading (and writing) a painting

A good artist, like a good writer, controls how his painting is read.

Early November: North Greenland, 1932, oil on canvas, Rockwell Kent, courtesy the Hermitage

People are sometimes under the mistaken notion that I’m intellectual. In fact, my taste in books is decidedly low-brow. Luckily, there are as many different books out there as there are readers. The same is true of paintings.

Reading a painting is similar to reading a book. First, there’s an introduction. We enter every painting at some point, although the artist need not create a literal visual path in for us. It’s just as likely that there are a series of focal points that the reader notices and absorbs in order. These are supported by incidental matter that contributes tone and information. A good artist, like a good writer, doesn’t leave this to chance. It’s organized in the composition phase and then supported in the painting phase.
Whalers, c. 1845, oil on canvas, JMW Turner, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are only three intelligible passages in this painting—the whale, the whalers in their dories, and the ship. The water might as well be a wheatfield for all the information we’re given.
That requires that you, the artist, understands the basics of composition. You control the motive line of your painting. You know how to use contrast and color to encourage the viewer to read your work in a specific order. You know how to make some passages subservient to these main themes.
You must understand the focal points of your painting, either overtly or subconsciously. These are not necessarily the subject. In Rockwell Kent’s Early November: North Greenland, 1932, our eyes go first to the iceberg in the foreground. Kent has made it the most luminous, warmest part of the scene, and set it off against the briny depths. Next we look at the hillside behind, which is almost as bright as the iceberg. Only after that does our eye travel to the human activity at the bottom. Here we’re arrested by an ageless story: man wrestling against the vast power of nature for his very survival. We spend a long time looking at these tiny fishermen, which we wouldn’t have done had they been what we noticed first.
The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, oil on wood panel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Royal Museums of Fine Arts. As with the gospels, all the action is in the most inconspicuous corner.
Kent has borrowed a technique first used by Pieter Bruegel the Elder four hundred years earlier. In his Census at Bethlehem, all the bustle and contrast of the midfield drive our eyes down to the least important part of the painting, the corner. There the scene is laid for the birth of Christ. Just as in the Bible story, this great event happens in an unimportant place.
We know that because we’re bringing our own understanding to the painting. In both literature and painting, prior knowledge plays a profound role in how we read the work. There are symbols we must decode, and experiences we relate to. The thematic thread tying together the three paintings above is the insignificance of man. Every one of us has felt that some time. That feeling transcends the specific narrative.
The Charioteer of Delphi, 478 or 474 BC, courtesy Delphi Museum. We may know nothing of this young man, but his beauty and concentration speak through the ages.
Some of the great art of the past has lost its narrative power today. We don’t know enough Greek mythology or Bible to fully decode them. But the greatest still have the power to transport us. They touch a common chord of experience and emotion.
In our digital culture, we don’t often take time to read artwork quietly. But that’s in the shopping phase. In the end, paintings will go home with someone, to be seen over long periods of time. To survive, they must have some story to tell, some depth of meaning, or they will be relegated to the attic. The work that compels the most on Instagram may be, sadly, the least successful in real life.

Painting with meaning

The paintings that catch our eye aren’t necessarily the ones that are perfectly executed.
American Eagle in Drydock, by Carol L. Douglas

While I’ve had an Instagram account for a long time, I’ve only recently understood how it really works. I’m not talking about its mechanics, but the algorithms that drive it. It has the power to be a massive dipping net. When you use it as a tool instead of passively looking at what it throws up at you, you see a lot of art outside your own little puddle. That exposes you to style and content you wouldn’t otherwise see. It’s all at thumbnail size, so the work must compel you instantly, just as your own slides must compel a juror’s.

Obviously, high chroma wins over subtle color every time. To imagine otherwise is to think that a fruit compote could be savored by a person who is stuffed full of Christmas cookies. Some of the qualities of painting that we traditionally admire—finish and modeling, for example—seem irrelevant, even counter-productive. Such paintings can seem academic and dull on Instagram, whereas they’re the ones that would look the best in real life. The exception is composition; it’s more, rather than less, important at such a tiny scale.
Dyce Head Light, by Carol L. Douglas
Instagram is chaotic. A painting by a complete duffer will appear in your feed after something by a well-known contemporary artist. The well-known artist will have more followers, increasing his chances of being seen. But if the duffer uses hashtags properly and you’re looking for paintings of his specialty, you’ll find his work.
That’s why I’m suddenly wasting all my free time on Instagram. A whole world of painters who will never be represented in New York galleries are there, painting their hearts out. I want to see what they’re doing. I want to understand my reaction to their work.
Jonathan Submarining, by Carol L. Douglas
What moves me, overwhelmingly, is content.
I recently saw a painting of a small house decked out in Christmas lights. It wasn’t a brilliant painting, but it was accurate enough that I could see my own life reflected in it. It was a portrait of coziness and contentment. It has been on my mind all week.
Emotional content doesn’t come easily to me. It’s possible that I’ve trained it right out through my fingers. When we do plein air events in unfamiliar places, we’re not expressing anything about purpose or meaning. All we can do is paint beauty.
Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday, I confused the suffixes amity and amor in writing. At 2 AM, I was awake and restless and beating myself up about it, as we like to do during bouts of insomnia. I’d been writing about domestic intimacy, so it was easy enough to slip up between ‘friend’ and ‘lover.’
A different thinker might be able to find concrete images to convey the easy, old relationships within a happy, functioning family. If I ran across that painting on Instagram, it would be the one that would still my hand and echo in my thoughts all day.
Now how do I get some of that for me?

It takes time

The Harvest is Plenty, 36X48, by Carol L. Douglas
On Friday I had the opportunity of hearing Dr. James Romaine give a gallery talk at Roberts Wesleyan. He described a piece of art as working in three spheres. There is the material—your technical approach to the work. There is the subject. The meaning comes from the marriage of technique and subject. A painting is successful if its subject and technique are integrated so that it has meaning.
Yard,11×44″, 2009 by Joel Sheesley. I’d have missed the references to Thomas Cole and romanticism entirely had Dr. Romaine not pointed them out in his talk.
Gustave Flaubert is reputed to have said, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” I think this is also true of painting. The artist starts out with a subject and materials and the meaning appears as he or she goes along. The mind is a mysterious and mighty tool. Allowed to work in the background, it comes up with some powerful stuff.
Dr. Romaine analyzed my painting The Harvest is Plenty. He started by pointing out things that came from the conscious side of my mind, even if they weren’t conscious decisions. I believe in a Providential God, for example, and  I know my Dutch Golden Age painters, which he saw in the low, flat horizon and the rainbow. The bottom two-thirds of the painting, he said, was fairly standard in its composition.
Dr. Romaine talked about Luvon Sheppard’s marriage of the mystical with a real sense of place. To me, it’s awfully important that the place is Rochester, because it tells me what my mission field is.
Then he talked about the storm cloud. It takes up half the canvas; it rises out of the frame over the head of the viewer. When I painted The Harvest is Plenty, I was recovering from a cancer treatment in which I hemorrhaged. Chaos seemed very close to enveloping me. I recollect that I had a terrible time drawing the storm cloud to match my sketch; it chose its ultimate shape, not me. But until he talked about it, I had no idea how autobiographical that storm cloud was.
Much of what is wrong with contemporary art is that the cart has been put before the horse. We are bludgeoned over the head with artificial meaning by artists who can’t or won’t concentrate on their materials. Artists pursue meaning—even when the meaning is explicitly the lack of meaning—instead of concentrating on the material and subject and allowing the meaning to grow up organically from that.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.