The Heart of the Matter
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” —Steve Jobs
Everyone understands the appeal of seeing familiar places in old paintings or photos. Think back on the early California paintings of Monterey, for example; who does not enjoy E. Charlton Fortune’s views of the harbor, for example, as it was then? In the same way that we find old photos of places fascinating because they give you a sense of how things were, so old paintings do the same thing. They evoke a feeling of how it was in the old days before we paved everything over to accommodate vehicles. More than old black and white photos, paintings can have an emotional quality because of lush color and brushwork. You can feel the landscape, feel the sun on your skin, almost smell the air.
So in the early 90s, a loose-knit group of painters used to meet in the old farm valley just south of San Jose, California, called Coyote Valley with this in mind, preserving the farmlands in paint in advance of the impending development of the land into acres of asphalt, glass and steel. The deal was done, the land already divided into parcels, ready for economics to trigger development. The Coyote Valley painters could envision people a hundred years from now viewing their sunlit paintings. They could imagine them exclaim “Look! There used to be a lovely farm right here in this parking lot!”
This painting group and, I imagine, many others like it across the country, would meet somewhere after painting for an instant exhibit or “critique”, leaning wet paintings against a fence, chatting about their experiences, sipping their coffee from paper cups, and giving encouragement to one another before heading back home, tired and sunburned. The conversation was never about selling. It was always about painting, gear, paint, brushes and locations. Sometimes it was about finding a place to show.
Perhaps it is just my personal bent of mind, perhaps I am alone in this, but whether I painted well or not, on days like that I felt I had fought the good fight, earned a bit of satisfaction, and knew that my painting, good or bad, if it survived the years, would mean something to someone far in the future. I also had the sense that my fellow ragtag group of artists was part of a larger “movement”.
The idea of a movement stirred much in me. That these stirrings were felt by many others across the country, I never had a doubt. Images of old photos of artists and writers sitting around tables in Paris cafes or in Gertrude Stein’s apartment swirled before me. You’ve seen them, old photos from the early 1900s. Look closely, isn’t that Picasso, isn’t that Hemingway, isn’t that…? They all became legendary. Stories of the beginning flourishing of the early California Impressionists, art history books filled with paintings of light and landscape of the two decades or so after the San Francisco fire of 1906. That was a movement. It came, flourished, and passed into history, an inspiration for a new movement. And here, right before us, was that fledgling movement, one filled with a unique spirit that whispered to the heart of the artistic person. Perhaps we would become legendary, too.
Legend, fame, all good things. However, this movement required a degree of mental and physical strength, perseverance, even bravery. And health. This was not a dissolute, absinthe-drinking movement of Paris but one that required energy and a clear mind. It was not the movement of the ground-breaking California impressionist; it must build on that and take their achievements to a new level. It wasn’t just a day at the park painting pretty pictures, either. No, in order to get to the heart of the landscape one must be deeply of the landscape and engaged at a foundational level, that is firmly planted and steady like a tree, quiet as a fox watching, and light, adaptable and changeable as the wind. One could not just sit comfortably and dabble.
In this artistic movement, the heroes were the ones who arrived angry and ready for a fight. Angry at anything inside that complained, and ready to fight those tendencies and any other onslaughts from nature. This beautiful movement would be filled with adventurous painters who left the ordinary world behind, captured the prize, and brought it back, a gift for all to see. Count. Me. In.
My head spins from these lofty thoughts even today. In those days, I believed all plein air painters felt the same way. It was what I breathed, what I devoured, out there alone on a trail to some pastoral scene or stand of eucalyptus that I had spotted from far away. Isn’t it called “transference”? Projecting your feelings onto others. Honestly, at the time,
I never doubted that most plein air artists felt the same. However, in light of how things are now and looking back on that period, a disturbing thought passes across the mind like the shadow of a large, circling bird, the thought that perhaps the “movement” was all in the mind of one crazy, dehydrated, sun-stroked artist who had spent far too much time out in the field and who was trying to make more of what was actually there.
Help me. Take a deep breath, think back, did these ideas live in your mind as you made the landscape live on your canvas through your admirable, even heroic effort? Did you not feel part of something larger, something grander? Did you not feel a place in history? Please, tell you me did.
Take note that the thought of money has not crept in yet. As the movement ramps up this will change. So, in a flurry of action and events, like a storm, the plein air movement comes full force upon the scene. The gradual shift from painting for yourself to painting completely for others happens in distinct, incrementally insidious stages in the plein air movement. First, teachers emerge, followed by painting demonstrations, and workshops.
Second, plein air competitions, first one here, one there, suddenly begin proliferating like mushrooms all over the country. This is wonderful in many ways and I’ve done “the circuit” as my East Coast friends refer to it, traveling from one competition to another picking up sales and prize money. It is social, it’s fun, it’s exhausting. The best competitions from the artists viewpoint are the organized events that are the culmination, the high point of the plein air movement.
But as time goes on one begins to see that, nice as some competition organizers are, it all comes down to sales, that is, did you sell enough paintings at the final show. Eventually, no matter how good a painter you are, if you didn’t bring in enough money for the sponsoring organization then you don’t make the cut next year. Artistic Darwinism. But, I question whether sales is the proper criteria for ongoing inclusion. These competitions are marketed as events that promote the arts and support artists. Really? Isn’t the truth that these are fundraising events that have the side benefit of making the organization, specifically an arts organization, look like it is fulfilling its charter? Why not do both? Because you can’t make the criteria sales while at the same time promoting excellent work. That is because you leave the judgement up to the buying public which varies in taste from region to region, pocketbook to pocketbook. Create a competition that brings the best work forward, the best work artistically, and do your fundraising a different way.
Then, in this inescapable march to becoming a commodity, you are spotted by the entrepreneurs. Shrewd like a fox sensing a prey, they sense an emerging, lucrative market. They smell it, they smell you, and you smell good. You smell like money. This market you are part of has huge growth potential, because the bulk of your fellow painters are entering this market as they are retiring from work life directly into plein air life. That market is you, the plein air painter. You are the tasty little prize they mean to capture.
An array of websites proliferate, offering the artist everything from website hosting and promotion to print on demand “giclee” prints, a shmancy name for a digital print. Existing art magazines begin writing about plein air and, more importantly to the entrepreneur, selling ads to these burgeoning businesses that produce every product from plein air easels to canvas panels to paint. An economic ecosystem forms quickly.
Those established art magazines were just playing catch up however, because we see the emergence of a new magazine devoted entirely to the subject, Plein Air Magazine. In every way, it is the perfect vehicle for promoting its crowning and truly brilliant marketing achievement, the Plein Air Convention, a convention for plein air painters.
Now, Down to Business
Everything has come together in a nice, neat package, a cradle-to-grave solution for the retiring or aspiring artist to become a plein air painter. Paint as you are told, paint what you are told, join the club, volunteer your time, and fame or, more realistically, selling success will come your way. The market for paintings has been figured out for you. What works. What doesn’t. How to paint successfully. How to get your work in galleries. What to charge. What kind of website host to use. How to take credit cards. How to make prints of your work. How to market your work. Everyone wants you now, none more earnestly than the entrepreneurs themselves. The system, plein air incorporated, is now in place.
If you are still with me, you sense I am about to reveal what is wrong with this picture. Bear with me while I describe the marketing system first, the system in which you, the painter, are the customer. At every step of the way, at every level of entry, you have been presented with another way to spend your money to advance the visibility of your work. The scheme is brilliant and not without huge benefits. Spend your money on advertising. Advertise your paintings. You need exposure. If you think you can teach, buy an ad to promote your workshop. The bigger the ad the better. The bigger the ad the better the artist, isn’t that right? If you have a following that you’ve put together, you may be invited to teach, gratis, at an event or to demonstrate your outdoor painting techniques indoors. (Don’t get me started.) Every question has been answered except one.
Rubber, Meet Road
Here is where it gets tough. Why did you become a plein air painter? I ask you again, why? Why did you become a plein air painter?
Are you able to answer that question? Nothing in the system above asks this question about your fundamental motives or aspirations. In fact, questions like this are purposely not raised for a very good reason. From the point of view of the system, it is best that the customer, you, be told what your motive should be, it should be to become successful. And who can argue with this?
Define successful. The definition of successful within this narrow system is that your paintings sell, and they sell more, and more. It’s about selling. It’s about money. It’s not about painting. Bottom line, if you sell you are a successful artist. The definition isn’t, “you are successful because you tried something different with the paint and discovered a new way of showing sun on water”. It is not, “you are successful because your painting is more than just a pretty picture, but rather it elicits an emotional response that is deep”. It is not, “you are successful because you have shown us a familiar subject in a way we have never seen”.
Because the system, in a very subtle way, deflects the real question and herds you into this market-driven way of thinking, you end up painting to their goal, not yours. You paint not what you want, but what you think will sell. You are brought into a world of salesmen selling you how to sell. If selling is why you became a painter then do, wholeheartedly and without reservation, try to top Thomas Kincade. He knew how to sell.
Now, those of you whose goals exactly match the goals of the system will disagree with me, and you will be right in a way because no one can tell you why you paint. No one is telling you, including this writer, that selling is bad. But for those who became a plein air painter because the goal is honoring the “beauty embedded in the subject of the painting.” to unabashedly quote myself from part one, then you will see that the plein air movement has been co-opted and quietly put to rest by market forces which threaten the quality and integrity of the body of work that you will leave behind when you die. Because of this, I say the plein air movement is dead.
All is not lost. We have nothing to lose now. If we understand and honor why we paint, if we follow our heart, your paintings, and mine, will be in the art history books one day, not because we sold well but because we painted well.
Epilogue: As time permits, I will follow up this essay with an epilogue containing some ideas on what to do and what not to do concerning the “system” we have. I hope they will spark a conversation that will bring back some of the initial glow of the plein air movement.