En Plein Air: Prepatory Sketch, Or Finished Work?

30 Jul 2009

I recently returned from a trip to Colorado, and while on that trip I got into quite the (heated) debate with two figure painters who claimed that plein air painters who sell their on-site sketches are bringing down the overall value of art.

The idea that plein air sketches should not be sold as finished works or are not deemed worthy of exhibition or sale is an interesting point of discussion: is plein air painting a means to an end—in other words, just the information-gathering stage to accurately capture the light, color, and shapes of a scene before turning that subject into a larger studio work—or can plein air paintings stand on their own as finished, collectable pieces of art?

Certainly if you ask professional landscape painters this question you will get various answers based on the stage of career of that artist and also their personal feelings toward plein air painting. I know several master-level artists who used the plein air process exclusively in the beginning or even middle stages of their career— to learn as much as possible about the way light affects the appearance of the landscape at different times of day, as well as to study the anatomy of nature and thereby develop a deeper understanding—but who now do most of their landscape work in the studio, working more from imagination and visual memory than from on-site sketches.

Still other master-level painters will tell you that plein air is still the backbone of every landscape painting they create, and when they don’t make it a point to get out in nature to paint from life their studio work suffers accordingly, often lacking the spirit, life, and emotion that naturally results from the plein air process.

All of them would probably say that the choice of whether or not to sell those plein air sketches is a personal one and that each artist has to make that decision for him or herself based on their current marketing strategies. From a collector’s standpoint, I would venture to say that plein air paintings—especially in today’s economy—offer interested enthusiasts an entry point into the professional artist’s work when it is not possible to purchase a larger piece. I would also say, and this might just be my personal preference, that there is sometimes more to be learned about the artist’s creative process through the spontaneous, painterly, noncontrived brushstrokes of a plein air sketch than there might be in a finished work.

I of course would love your opinion on the subject: do you use plein air for preparation for studio work or as an art form in itself? And, do you think the sale of plein air work is a help or hindrance to the individual artist’s career and to the art market as a whole?


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Comments

on 30 Jul 2009 5:47 AM

Allison,

As a Collector, I've bought plein air paintings of other artists right off their pochade easel. Sometimes I just fall in love with a little fresh painting done from life - and a bonus is to have watched the artist paint it on location.

I also appreciate and buy studio paintings, but as you said above, they can often be out of reach for me, price wise.

No matter what the artists argue about what is legitimate finished work for selling purposes, I think the collectors by and large determine what's worth adding to their collections. Ten years ago, plein air sales were hot, and lately I've seen more studio paintings sell. It'll be interesting with the recession to see if the less expensive plein air sales pick up again.

Long way of saying... yes, both are art, because people desire to own them.

MargMillard wrote
on 30 Jul 2009 6:06 AM

I had my first experience with Plein Air painting this past weekend in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia where a number of artists came together for a annula affair and settled about the town and surrounding area.

I was amazed at how difficult it was and yet very exciting. Pieces were rough, done quickly and why should they bring the prices a finished painting would bring. I over estimated what would be a good composition and ended up producing a couple pieces that were colourful but not near my usual standard.

janblencowe wrote
on 30 Jul 2009 8:25 AM

I don't think selling plein air paintings brings down the value of art any more than does a figurative artist who sells their 1, 2 or 5 min. pose studies done in a life drawing class. Especially when compared to some of the really terrible so called  "art" that floods the internet these days.  

Both the plein air painting and the figure study from life both embody an immediacy and calligraphic marks as unique to each artsist as handwriting.

I've been plein air painting for about 10 years and I also create works in the studio.  They are fundamentally different, but each has value.  

I often don't think people realize how difficult it is to paint outdoors. I am always amazed at the true plein air greats who, on the spot ,with changing light, weather conditions, bugs, on lookers, small canvas panels, a few colors and brushes create amazing pieces of art.  Not all plein air paintings are rough, and unsophisticated even compared to studio paintings. But it takes years of paintings outdoors and I suspect some innate talent.

Collectors are ultimately the determiners of value and there are many who value paintings produced by an artist while actually in front of the scene.

There are many more kinds of "art" out there that devalue the idea of fine art, but I don't believe plain air paintings are one of them.                

on 1 Aug 2009 11:09 AM

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JRBaldini wrote
on 6 Aug 2009 10:29 AM

Agreement on Art or Politics ? it will never happen.

Rather than post a pro or con, let me just say that plein air painting is alive and well, as are plein air painter groups, such as International Plein Air Painters, hosting the 7th annual Worldwide Paint Out Sept 11-13, 2009 - groups and individuals paint simultaneously around the globe.

Registration is at

www.ipap.homestead.com/paintout.html

I, myself, have always been an outdoor painter.

RichWash wrote
on 6 Aug 2009 11:27 AM

Art is art, outside as well inside a studio.

Bob Bahr wrote
on 6 Aug 2009 11:45 AM

I remember Ned Mueller telling me that when people ask him how long it took him to do a particular plein air piece, he says, "about 40 years." He was, of course, counting all the hours he spent in cold, in the rain, among the biting flies, and near rattlesnakes as he honed his skills.

on 6 Aug 2009 1:03 PM

I can only say that I have done both figural works in the studio and plein air works for years.  Plein air work sketches are a unique animal so to speak.  They deserve as much value as a Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh or any other impressionist painting that was done outdoors if done right  Just look at the values of those early French impressionist paintings today.  I only wish I could've been alive back then and followed Monet or Van Gogh around and purchased a wet painting straight off their easel.  Especially Van Gogh since he only sold one painting in his lifetime.  The act of producing a plein air piece requires speed, fundamental artistic knowledge, egotistical power, intense emotional reaction and sweat.  There's probably more, but I am in a hurry to respond.  In other words, a plein air artist has to cram all that expert ability into 1-1/2 hours to capture the light.  If that piece turns someone on, it gets sold.  I have produced many that have sold off the easel and many that I finished back in the studio to refine more.  That's brings to mind a studio painting, we have more time in a studio to relax and fine tune a piece.  Surely all the aspects of painting come into play in a studio as they do outdoors.  I love my studio works, they are quite refined and I feel it is more convenient to produce works from there. I just completed a figural piece for an exhibition that I was excited about and will paint more figurals soon in the studio.   But I wouldn't trade in or give up on plein air works ever, they are spontaneous works of an artist's mastery of handling the medium in an instance, not planned out.  Incredible touches of the brush with colors errupt from this style of painting, it speaks to the heart of collectors on how that artist captured that moment when the light was just right.  Not all plein air works are successful, but they still have value and if the artist wants to sell it and someone really wants to buy it, then why not?  What pleases one person may not please another but artists do need to make a living and have a right to sell work sketches at an entry price.  I do this myself. In these times people are searching for inexpensive art.  In order to support my art habits I must make money and I have sold smaller plein air works for years.  I also keep many work sketches to paint larger studio works from.  Educated art collectors also have the right to want to spend a lot more money on studio works that show the great merits of an established artist.  I think that is marvelous, I have a few that are up for sale on my website, I am waiting for the right buyer who doesn't mind spending a bit more for a larger studio piece.  Meanwhile, I just took images of a bunch of my work sketches and will be offering them for sale at great deals.   I spoke with a gallery director several years ago about this same question and she recommends that the artist calls his or her lower priced works, sketches.  That way it doesn't hurt the artist's reputation or chance of receiving higher prices on the studio works or those plein air pieces that truly turn out successful.  

Bvssey wrote
on 6 Aug 2009 10:19 PM

I think the confusion comes in about the sketches because people go to a museum and see a sketch from a true artist or true master, from back in the day and don't realize that the reason that sketch is in there isn't because he sold it or passed it off as art but someone kept if from that time period and now we look at it as a way to see how those great artist planned or visualized an idea for a painting.

but, the art world and art market are so screwed up currently and I believe it has been since the post-impressionist era. people saw what the impressionist did, but couldn't see the true skill they had and so since then an unskilled person can now go get some paint from toy's r us and paint a canvas and call it art or whatever, and some idiot will pay a ton for it because they listen to another idiot or they just don't have any idea about art or the history of art, oh, so sad, the art of painting is almost dead, people use to learn the art of painting for years before taking any out to sell, now, anything goes, so sad....

Arti wrote
on 6 Aug 2009 11:45 PM

In my opinion, on-site sketches cannot bring down the value of art. Simply because it is a customer's decision what to buy, and the customers have their own reasons for the decision. They may love a painting just because they love it, without considering the amount of artist's time spent on it or the place it was made at (studio or outdoors).

I was always totally against representation of art as something unreachable for common people, something that only specialists can decide about. Anybody has his own taste and preferences.

Personally, I would rather sale my painting to somebody who fell in love with it rather than to somebody who wants to buy it out of well-considered commercial reasons.

If somebody loves one of my quick and spontaneous plain-air sketches, why should I deny the wish of that person to possess the picture? Even if I only spent 30 minutes on the sketch, it is still valuable for the buyer because of love and emotions he has.

on 7 Aug 2009 8:46 AM

Aren't figure painters working “from life” in their studios as plein air painters are working “from life” in the field?  Then, can the question really be merely the amount of time spent on a particular work?   A successful plein air painting is ultimately judged by its ability to convey mood and light, not the hours spent on it.  Otherwise, we could just charge by the hour.

A plein air painting may take a short time to complete, but let’s not forget the training, discipline and observation that is the backbone of that painting.

on 20 Aug 2009 1:25 PM

Thanks for all the feedback--it's reassuring to see confirmation of what I suspected: art is art, whether a plein air sketch or a finished studio work, and each piece should be judged on its artistic and emotive merit, not necessarily on how long the artist spent on it or what size it is. Thanks everyone!

Lei Iverson wrote
on 18 Sep 2009 6:42 PM

I think it is all a matter of intentions. The french term “ Plein Air” means "in the open air", and is particularly used to describe the act of painting outdoors. It takes years of working in natural light for a painter to have enough understanding to make quick decisions and put them in simple terms. Resulting in a lively response or impression of the subject.

Although, a “Plein Air” painting can be used as a reference for a studio painting, the initial intent of painting is for the sake of outdoor painting.

Whereas, the intent of a ‘prepartory sketch’ or a rough layout or unfinished painting. Sketched or painted for the purpose to use as reference materials as a part for making a future a more finished studio work.

Both are of value and both have the same merit if done well.

Note: Using a “Plein Air” painting as a reference for a studio work, Does Not make the resulting studio work a “Plein Air” painting and it is unethical to promoted as such.

Lei Iverson wrote
on 18 Sep 2009 6:43 PM

I think it is all a matter of intentions. The french term “ Plein Air” means "in the open air", and is particularly used to describe the act of painting outdoors. It takes years of working in natural light for a painter to have enough understanding to make quick decisions and put them in simple terms. Resulting in a lively response or impression of the subject.

Although, a “Plein Air” painting can be used as a reference for a studio painting, the initial intent of painting is for the sake of outdoor painting.

Whereas, the intent of a ‘prepartory sketch’ or a rough layout or unfinished painting. Sketched or painted for the purpose to use as reference materials as a part for making a future a more finished studio work.

Both are of value and both have the same merit if done well.

Note: Using a “Plein Air” painting as a reference for a studio work, Does Not make the resulting studio work a “Plein Air” painting and it is unethical to promoted as such.

Debi51 wrote
on 6 Oct 2009 7:36 AM

My gut reaction to this: why would an artist worry?

Everyone is working at different levels, and what one artist does with their plein air paintings/ sketches, should not adversely affect another artist's work. To me it makes no sense to worry about the paths that other artists take with their journey. Interest in their paths, yes.. worry, no.

Art is very eclectic, and each artist stands on his/her own works, (in my opinion.)

Thanks for the opportunity to voice! :O)

lkfarms2 wrote
on 13 Dec 2009 3:10 PM

I have just started to paint. I do think if someone wants to buy a Plein Air sketch, then let them buy it. They may not be able to aford a studio painting but want some art not done by the kids. If they like the work if the artist enough to buy then as they get on to a better level in life they would, I think want the artist stuido work.

Liny2 wrote
on 4 Aug 2013 10:57 AM

I think it's a simply issue of supply and demand.  As long as there is a market for them, why shouldn't artists sell them? Sketches or "unfinished" pieces of famous artists are coveted, and that certainly doesn't lower the value of their master works. A studio filled with beautiful plein air pieces and sketches shouldn't only be of value as part of the artist's estate. If you do beautiful work, preparatory or otherwise, people will want it.  Some well known artists could put a price tag on their messy palette and probably get a decent price for it as well.