What is Plein Air?

Note: If you already think that plein air painting is painting a scene in the outdoors while outdoors, then you can skip this post.

In the First Few MomentsAt first look, it would seem that the answer to the question “What is plein air?” would be as obvious as the answer to the question “What is cooking?” but it is not so obvious to everyone. In fact, there seems to be some confusion about it. But let’s put the plein air question aside for a moment and ask “what is cooking?” and see if there is a clue in that question to the truth in the other.

So, isn’t “cooking” preparing food for a meal? Cooking can involve a complicated process of choosing and preparing fresh, canned, or dried ingredients, chopping, boiling, blanching, frying, seasoning and placing the final mix onto a plate or in a bowl for consumption at the table or on the go. Cooking is also opening a can and heating it…or is it? Let’s say we prepare two simple meals in two different manners. We will be having a simple meal, a bowl of chili, and we will prepare each meal differently in order to understand which method involves cooking. To do this we will prepare two bowls of chili, one prepared in one manner and the other in an alternative manner. Then we will ask the question “Which meal was cooked by the preparer?” In other words, which manner of preparation involved cooking on the part of the preparer?

Chili Contestant #1

A recipe was found and generally followed, in which we used dry beans soaked overnight and rinsed the next day, thrown into a pot on the stove and brought to a boil. Added to the pot were a variety of spices and other fresh ingredients, such as sauteed chopped onions and diced tomatoes. All of this was simmered for hours and served hot with crackers, and a sprinkle of chopped green onions and cilantro on top. A sliced lime was squeezed over the the bowl it all and the chili was served with a cold drink.

Chili Contestant #2

In the cupboard we found a can of chili that was reaching its expiration date but still good. We were starving. This kind of can has a pull top so we didn’t even need to use the can opener. Scooped it out into our bowl and popped it into the microwave for a bit and served it with some soda crackers and a cola.

The Winner

In both of these cases we have a bowl of chili for a meal. One bowl was created by cooking, the other was not. Which one involved cooking by the preparer? No doubt, there will be no agreement at all on this point, for some will define cooking as opening a can and others will be appalled at the concept. While opening a can of some ingredient needed in a recipe may be part of cooking, it feels like the mere act of opening a can and heating the ingredients somehow violates the truth of real Cooking. Or, at least, it violates the spirit of cooking, if cooking has a spirit. Cooking is, or can be, more than just throwing something together for the sake of expedience. Certainly there are times when throwing something together is the very most sensible thing to do in order to stop the crashing of blood sugar and risking discord between us and our loved ones. However, when you do that, and we all have, don’t you feel like you’ve cheated your loved one, or even yourself? Maybe. Maybe it’s just great to have the hunger gone. Nothing wrong with that. But cooking is, at its best, an act of love in the sense that one takes care to use the best ingredients to prepare a meal that nurtures the self and others at a very fundamental, even molecular, level. If we have the time, if we are not starving and forced to shove just any old thing in our mouthes, don’t we like to have a delicious, nurturing meal? And don’t those of us who truly enjoy cooking also, as part of the whole experience, love to feed the ones we love? Honestly, sometimes microwaving a can of chili is exactly the right thing to do. It is not cooking.

Indoors is Not Outdoors

Plein air painting is something like that, too, something like cooking, in the sense that there is also an end result which can be arrived at in different ways. One way is plein air painting. The other is just painting. Both are valid ways of painting, but here we are defining plein air painting. Clearly, plein air painting is not akin to opening a can of chili unless you are painting a can of chili outdoors in the scene before you, in which case a can of chili is perfectly acceptable. Forgive the digression into absurdity. The key requirement is the “outdoors” part.

We can easily prove that painting plein air is not akin to opening a can of chili by starting with the French term “plein air”. Still, this will not be enough proof for some artists. Nevertheless…”plein air” is generally translated to mean “outdoor”. Plein air painting would be painting outdoors, not in the studio. Speaking more to the spirit of the phrase, the artist is not just painting outdoors but is painting the outdoors. In other words, the artist is painting a scene before him in the open air, outdoors, and is not painting some imaginary or remembered scene or still life that does not actually exist right before him there at that moment, outdoors. The artist may paint a can of chili that is sitting there on a log in front of him outdoors, but if he is painting a can of chili from his memory or, more likely, is painting a can of chili because he is hungry, this is not plein air. The proof is the existence of the can of chili right there before him outdoors. Can of chili actually there, plein air. Can of chili is imaginary, not plein air.

The nameless masters who created the lovely, vivid pieces in the caves at Lascaux were, by definition, not plein air painters even though they were, unknown to themselves, French. The scenes were remembered and/or imaginary and possibly all mixed up in their minds with unseen power. We don’t know for sure.

The nameless masters who created the lovely, vivid pieces in the caves at Lascaux were, by definition, not plein air painters even though they were, unknown to themselves, French.

They may have been prayers, so to speak, painted rather than spoken on a cathedral wall, their cathedral being like a studio, out of the weather, secluded, full of mind stuff. The animals in these paintings were not there in front of them and, furthermore, they were not “outdoors” so these are studio paintings, not plein air.

Back to cooking chili. So if two essentially identical meals, chili, are prepared in two completely different ways making one cooked and the other merely prepared, then two paintings of the same subject, say a towering eucalyptus tree, painted in two different circumstances, would be one plein air piece and one studio piece.

What Plein Air is Not

It can be said, reasonably so, that the core characteristic, the primary feature, the essential genetic map of plein air painting is painting the outdoors outdoors. It has been said, and unreasonably so, that a painter may take a photo of an outdoor scene then retire to the comfort of his studio, with its NPR on the radio, and its little electric heater and maybe a glass of wine, and there he may paint from the photo and may be allowed to call the result “plein air”.

Some of you hard experienced artists will, at this point, be screaming “No!”, while others will see the comfortable reasonableness of this very convenient notion. Why brave the weather? To those who have a screaming no in their head at the disturbing notion of painting plein air in the comfort of a studio or, for that matter, inside a convention hall on a stage under artificial light, the following is dedicated. As clear-cut as this definition is, plein air painting is painting the outdoors outdoors, you experienced artists understand that the definition leaves out so many corollaries, connotations and complexities that we feel unduly rushed to offer a counter-argument. It would be an argument rooted in the reality of the artist rooted to a single spot outdoors for hours while wind, weather, wild animals, and tourists barrage our effort to paint what is before us. Even if we leave the window of our studio open wide on a stormy day we can not experience plein air painting while in the studio.

Perhaps that is one of the corollaries, that plein air painting is an experience, and an experience dearly paid for in sweat and, sometimes, even blood and tears. Who has not finished a masterpiece, turned his back for a minute only to hear the crashing of the easel as the wind does what it blindly does when it sees a sail or any kind of canvas? Note to self: a canvas is a sail. Never turn your back. On the other hand, sometimes the wind does you a favor. The experience of plein air is like any experience, it is something that happens that you can remember, think, and talk about…and use or benefit from the next time out.

Not everything is an experience, however. Take for example, your own death, something that some of us artists contemplate when painting. You can not remember your own death, nor can you think about it, nor talk about it after the fact. (There are those who will argue with this, but for now bear with this argument.) Painting in the studio is an experience. Painting plein air is an experience. Both are experiences and one is not the other. Though it could be argued correctly that each plein air experience is unique and so is each studio experience and so what would be the difference if every experience is unique? Does this make studio painting the same as plein air painting? In many ways yes, except that in the studio, or the convention hall, you are indoors. Indoors. Not outdoors. But we’ve settled that part and now we are talking about the experience.

Any plein air painter with any kind of experience knows that it is true beyond exception that, unless you have a very shabby and dangerous studio indeed, a studio that has no windows, one that has holes in the roof right above your easel, has no heating, no electricity, solar power only, and has animals and insects sneaking around, and, very importantly,has tourists saying “My mother used be a painter, too.” or, worse yet, “You look sooooo peaceful painting.” (a question which seems calculated to raise your hackles) or the classic “What are you painting?” (always asked when you are clearly painting a tree, the only tree in sight).

If, and only if, you have a studio where all of the above apply then you will be granted a special dispensation to be allowed to say that, indeed, the painting you finished in your studio is a plein air painting. Why? Because you deserve it.

Plein air is not for the faint of heart, that’s why. Plein air is all bugs and sun and brushes dropping and interruption and the sun not staying put and the wind coming up and deer, foxes, birds, tired legs, sun-burned arms, sweaty heads, and doubt. And that is just the base line. On top of that base line you have to focus the mind, make quick decisions, see clearly the composition, the colors, what to leave in, and what to take out. You have to judge your energy and pace yourself, visualize the end of the work before you, work tirelessly and know when to stop or know when to give up and try another day.

Plein air is not about being comfortable. If you want to be comfortable today and you don’t feel like anything but hot coffee, radio on, electric heater going, big canvas on an an easel, no jacket needed, and a cushy chair to rest or even nap in, then stay where you are…the studio. It’s good to stay in the studio and it is alright to work from that photo of the scene with the single tree or the chili can but be honest to yourself and to others. You are not painting plein air when you are in the studio. Plein air painters earn, say it again, earn the right to claim a painting as painted plein air.

Plein Air is Not a Style

Let us put this one to rest, bury it alongside that other notion that you can paint plein air in a studio. The idea that plein air is a style of painting has probably done more damage to the plein air “movement”, if you can call it that, than any other idea. The idea that plein air is a “style” is easy to debunk. If you are an artist and you say that you paint in the “plein air style” or you allow anyone else to describe your work that way, then you are inferring that you paint in the style of Vincent Van Gogh or John Singer Sargent to name just two famous artists who painted plein air. Of course, as any honest artist knows, style emerges from your experience, experience which may or may not include training but certainly includes hundreds of hours of work. Though we may try hard to emulate some of their technique, who these days is trying to paint plein air in the style of Van Gogh or Sargent?

Usually when people say plein air is a style it exposes the underlying, vague idea that you paint like the early California impressionists for the most part. But “paint like” them is wrong. The deadly part of this notion is an uninformed idea in the minds of artists and patrons alike that these California impressionists painted a certain way. Of course they did not. Nor did they all paint the same subjects. There are many paintings from those early days that show eucalyptus, California hills, and Pacific Ocean coast lines, for example. None of these are styles; they are subjects.

If you were to look at every early California impressionist painting, if you were to gorge yourself on the collections at the Irvine, the DeYoung, and the Crocker, or walked the smartest galleries of Carmel, California, you would come away with an overall impression of subject and color, an impression which, when scrutinized painting by painting, would fall apart under the gaze of objectivity. There is no style, there are many ways not styles, many techniques, and hundreds of subjects. About the only thing you can say about historical plein air, as regards style, is that plein air is generally not abstract. But even then you are wrong, for the very best plein air is realistic at a distance and abstract close up. The best plein air artists of today see this as an ideal, too. The loose abstraction of realism. Or, realistic abstraction. Doesn’t matter, it’s not a style; it’s an ideal or a goal.

Some financially-successful artists have taken this general impression about the early California impressionists and extended what those artists began to a logical conclusion and they are, in every sense of the word, better than those early artists except…except, they are not the pioneers. In this sense, they have taken plein air to the level of style but only in that very narrow sense and, usually, by resorting to the studio to finish most of the work, thereby disqualifying some pieces from the hard earned description of “plein air”. This, of course, does not diminish the great beauty of their work, their studio work. Ironically, when these contemporary masters do go back out into the outdoors, often at plein air competitions, they manage to teach the rest of us how to paint plein air.

The Plein Truth

When a lively group of plein air painters in the Monterey peninsula area, and beyond, decided to form a painting club back in the early 2000s, one of the discussions that came up was the definition of plein air. After all, if it was to be an association of plein air painters then you must, as an artist, meet basic requirements to join. There was a contingent of the group that felt very comfortable with the idea that an artist could work from photos or sketches that were done in the field to paint a painting in the studio and would have the right to call the work “plein air”. The thinking was that the painting would have been “inspired” by the outdoors.

Others, most definitely those artists with several years of the outdoor experience mentioned above, were not ready to allow that an artist sitting pretty in his studio really deserved to call himself a plein air painter if, in fact, he hadn’t painted outdoors. That this was even in question shows how we humans can rationalize anything. In the end, the group came to its senses and incorporated with a set of rules that clearly stated that the work must be done outdoors and substantially completed outdoors.

What it did not go on to say is that plein air is plein air and does not, therefore, have to be painting. It could be sculpture. But that’s an argument for another day.

###

The next post will be “Why the Plein Air Movement is Dead”.

3 comments for “What is Plein Air?

  1. Keri
    December 28, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Anxiously awaiting the next installment

Leave a Reply