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?