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You Have to Be There

7 Apr 2014

Plein air painting often requires a Herculean effort on the part of the artist. It can't be taught in a studio. It must be experienced first-hand to be fully appreciated. All the senses and faculties must be fully engaged, especially curiosity. One cannot come to this job with any preconceived notion of what might come of the effort. Nor is it a good idea to develop and apply a particular "technique" suitable for all occasions. Doing that reduces nature to a mundane thing, easily described and dispatched.

The world already has a sufficient supply of formulaic plein air look-alikes. What is needed in art is Truth - the personal truth gained from making oneself vulnerable and open to experience. Knowledge gained from sincere effort is invested with the power of that personal experience. The searching for expression and the struggle to make those intimate insights concrete always shows up in the paint.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood by John Singer Sargent, oil painting.
Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood
by John Singer Sargent, oil painting.

We believe that to learn and really grow from our experiences in the outdoors, we must approach our subject with an attitude of a humble student who is willing and eager to be shown something new each day. Fear of failure is overwhelmed by curiosity and the tantalizing aspect of discovery.  One of the best descriptions of the requirements for painting outdoors was written by our friend Robert Genn:

      Looking is opening your mind to your impressions.

      Seeing is replacing what you know with what you see.

      Mixing is the knowledgeable confluence of pigments.

      Testing is comparing your preparations with the truth.

      Adjusting is the will to fix your flagrant wrongs.

 Today, plein air workshops abound - we teach some of them - offering up the secrets of picturing the world to the eager student. We can teach colors, values, edges composition and the like. We can teach a method for going about making a painting. The truth is, though, that no one can teach anyone how to truly see what is in front of them or how they should feel about that subject. Seeing is a learning process which takes time and practice. It is delightfully troublesome, and after painting outdoors for over 30 years, we are constantly surprised by how often nature reveals how much we still don't know.

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PRichards wrote
on 18 Jul 2014 8:37 AM

Notice that Monet is sitting, and from the angle that this is painted, I think Sergeant was sitting as well. Most plein air workshops I have attended emphasize the desirability of standing, but I find that simply sitting down helps me to spend more time looking.

PRichards wrote
on 18 Jul 2014 8:37 AM

Notice that Monet is sitting, and from the angle that this is painted, I think Sergeant was sitting as well. Most plein air workshops I have attended emphasize the desirability of standing, but I find that simply sitting down helps me to spend more time looking.