What do you think of when you hear an artist refer to their work as ‘plein air’, or in the French, ‘En plein air’? If your eyes tend to glaze over as you hear this often used phrase presuming it to be pretentious and a hallmark of dull painting, you might be interested to know a bit about its history and why it is such an enduring and endearing practice in art. In our Blue Door Gallery we feature the work of Alice Searcy our own local plein air style painter so if you find this article peeking your interest, it is probably worth a trip down to Rome street to take a look.
The first thing you need to know about plein air painting is that it is as much an issue of technology as it is craft. This is not to say it depends upon photography, as the invention of the practice occurred around the same time as the invention of the camera, but that several important inventions arose that made the plein air practice possible. We generally credit British artist John Constable (1776-1837) for initiating the practice and laying the groundwork for the technique used by future painters similarly seeking a certain ‘truth’ in their depictions of nature and life.
But art materials are notoriously unwieldy and so the invention of the ‘field easel’ or Pochade box, was critical to the flourishing of the practice. Constable is thought to have made some of his own, sized for his desired works. This ‘box easel’ contains the materials of oil paint, media, palette and brush, and then neatly extends folding legs, its lid opening to become a proper easel complete with clamps that could hold a moderately sized canvas or board. Small and light weight enough to be carried to any number of outdoor locales for studies, the easel became a ubiquitous accessory for the painters of the period. The telescoping legs supporting the box itself resemble in many ways the cameras and tripods that were developed in the mid 1800’s, popularized by Eastman. It isn’t too speculative to imagine one design following the other though it isn’t known definitively which came first. Regardless, as with the camera, the Pochade box design allowed for a freedom of movement to capture nature and life outside that was out of reach before.
In 1841, John Goffe Rand (1801-1873) a portrait painter and inventor, patented tin tubes with lids for the storage of oil paint. This simple design that we artists take for granted today, liberated the artist of the tedium of mixing pigments in studio and storing them in glass syringes or pots. Renoir stated of the product that “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism.’ Coupled then with the portable easel, artists were free to travel easily to locations and work, using techniques developed by Constable and his fellows that included dabs of swiftly applied paint, blending optically on the canvas, scumbling layers afterwards, that captured flickering light on the landscape or the mercurial nature of clod and water. Certainly not as loose as the Impressionists who followed in the 1860s, his gestural alla prima (‘wet on wet’) applications became the standard methodology of later plein air artists.
Plein air painters were rebels in their day, which is hard to imagine as one looks at what are now thought of as their highly classical images of landscapes. Landscape before their time was treated like a static stage, composed with an eye directed more to dramatic composition and ground for figures or structures. Artists like Constable and Turner however, wanted more honesty and authenticity in their works and so turned to drawing and painting directly from observation, in nature itself, committing to capturing the most accurate phenomenon of light and space.
A final advance came from science with the discoveries of how the eye perceives light and color, dating back to Bacon in the 13th century and Newton in the 17th. Using glass prisms these scientists realized how white light was composed of a spectrum of colors that led to Newton describing the first ‘color wheel’ in 1706.
Other scientists followed, building upon his work, into the 20th century, leading to the most common current model by Johannes Itten, developed through his study with noted mentors and colleagues at the Bauhaus School. To our plein air painters this knowledge became an indispensable source of interest that caused them to question what, and how, we see color both in nature and then in representation, through painting. Light was not actually ‘white’ they surmised, and so artists like Monet set about fracturing their colors on the canvas, using simultaneous contrast and complementary color harmonies to craft vivid visions of nature and the figure.
Whereas Constable was deriving an ethereal quality from his observations in nature, the later painters were inviting a deeper perception and a heightened color palette of what they were seeing, and coupled with the quick readiness of their portable studios, some of the greatest works of landscape were created. In the modern era, the vision of the artist took precedence over the verisimilitude of painting from life and painters were free to draw from their own expressive desires. But throughout the ensuing decades, artists carrying their field easels out into nature to capture the brilliance of color and light in a favored pastoral setting has remained a mainstay of the painter’s practice and one of the best hallmarks of the artist’s development.