|“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” — Thucydides|
|Some visions form slowly over years, a piece here, a fragment there, like pieces of a puzzle fitting together, gradually forming into the picture of what you want, or how you want to be. Other visions come upon you all at once, vivid, tangible, full of a transforming power, fully formed, taking your breath away with their clarity, their lucidity. Unlike Thucydides, I was not retired when I had my vision of becoming a plein air painter. I had no gold mines to fund my dream, no time for anything but the responsibilities of work and family.
In those years, not that long ago, I was a professional designer and illustrator, living on the East coast. When I could manage it, I was a painter of acrylics and watercolors and, like most other artists, entered shows and even had my own shows now and then. However, on my long walks after work and on weekends I would think about painting in oils, harboring a lifelong conviction, valid or not, that oils are the “real thing”.
The landscape of the East is not dramatic but it is full of subtle beauty and shades of color, the lovely orange glow of the setting sun on the upper branches of bare oaks in winter, the steamy, shimmering air over the lake in summer, and the great billowing towers of cloud over brilliant spring fields. While on these walks, in my mind I mixed the colors of the trees, imagined the strokes, visualized how I would, one day when the time was right, paint what I saw. Being outdoors was a passion too, and I made a few trips to California to hike the wilderness trails of the Sierras, coming back to the very tame landscapes of the East, mixing colors again, visions of California trailing away.
All of this oil painting of landscapes, by the way, was an activity only of my fantasies for months and months on end, as my little son grew from babyhood into early childhood. I gave this time to him and was happy to abide, for the time being. So, the reality of actually painting landscapes still seemed far away to me, though an inevitability. Oddly, it never crossed my mind that when the day did come that I would paint landscapes in oil that I would paint outside. In my fantasies, I was always in a studio.
Then it came upon me, the vision; not the one that builds slowly, though, yes, a vision had been building, but the vision that washes through you like a torrent, turns you around, and points your feet in a direction, and compells you to take the first steps. This was in the early 90s and I had never even heard the term “plein air”. My early childhood hero Vincent Van Gogh, however, towered in my imagination, a hero of art who gave it all. Nothing stopped Vincent, not even night, as we know from the story of him painting by candlelight, candles stuck to the brim of his hat. The truth in that story is what is important, not the details. The truth is: let nothing stop you, give yourself no excuses. Surely Vincent was the first great plein air painter.
My vision attained its lucidity one day when I was looking through an art magazine and there was the story about a certain artist who painted these wonderful 4″x6″ oil sketches outdoors. Close up, these paintings were simple, almost abstract, with firm strokes and good color. But step back and they had a realism that was just stunning. The article called Kevin McPherson’s work “plein air”. In a single moment, everything crystalized, all the pieces fit, all the vague fantasies turned into reality. I had a name for what I wanted to do: plein air.