Two Approaches to Plein Air Painting
12×9 Oil on paper by Michael Chesley Johnson
In this study, I was trying to observe the scene carefully. There’s not much
detail in it, as I was focusing more on shapes of value and color. Is it art?
What’s your goal when you go out to paint? Do you try to paint things just as you see them, or do you exercise your artistic license, rearranging the scene and pushing the color?
There are two ways to paint en plein air—either you paint things as they are, or you don’t. The first is great for honing your observational skills, and the second, for refining your experience or the expression of that experience. Some might say the first is nothing more than an exercise; the second, a way of creating authentic art.
I would contend that both ways can create art.
One of the goals in my plein air painting workshops is to help students see the world accurately. Many of them have spent a lifetime working from photos, but they lack the valuable skill of observing from life. We spend our time examining the color relationships of light and shadow; we ask how do value, temperature, chroma and hue differ? Periodically, I go through these exercises myself. There’s nothing more satisfying than spending a couple of hours observing and then translating, as accurately as possible, into paint or pastel what I see before me. It’s almost like a meditation.
But sometimes, I might call the result of these exercises “art.”
To start with, let’s agree that a work of art is unique. The uniqueness comes from the fact that we are all individuals. My color vision and visual acuity differ from yours. I am slightly red-green color-blind and very myopic, the latter of which is corrected with progressive lenses. I would even say that my brain interprets differently what my eyes register, thanks to genetic, environmental and cultural factors. Also, I have a bias as to what interests me. Whereas I am fascinated by dominant dark patterns, you may focus instead on texture. Finally, I’m right-handed and may hold the brush a certain way. Were we to set up side-by-side, our paintings would be very different.
All these things together might achieve nothing more than a well-observed exercise—but they do not yet constitute art. They will, of course, contribute to a unique style, yet style is not art.
But more can happen.
An artist can become such a finely-tuned instrument that the mere act of observing the world and then translating it into paint can make art. This is not a conscious effort but an automatic one. When an observation takes an instant, immediately followed by the mixing and application of paint, there is no time for thinking about how to make art. But the mature artist has already thought about it—and has been thinking about it all his working life—and so his response becomes intuitive. Through that intuition, he is making unconscious choices that, as I noted above, refine the experience or the expression of the experience. In another person’s hands, the result may be merely a carefully-observed study; but in his, it becomes something filled with power and beauty.—
Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM