Have you ever wondered why you so seldom find artists painting out in the countryside or on city streets? That activity called plein aire painting is quite demanding, not only because of the vagaries of the weather and the hassles with transporting equipment but also because of the difficulty restricting a view. Where should the edge of the painting be? What should be included? What should be the focal point, the heart of that work? Now add another factor to those questions. How much can I produce in an hour? Because the sun’s movement is slow, it is not immediately apparent that the shadows and highlights shift to create quite a different view in just sixty minutes.
I think that there is no question that on-the-spot paintings produce an immediate fresh image. Because a plein aire painter must be economical with his time, decisions must be made and lived with. While in the studio, works can be painted, changed, altered and repainted. When the time allowed by light is short, an artist must be decisive. The brief period available also means that only the most meaningful pieces of information can be included. There is no time for unnecessary detail. This is the telegraph of the painting processsuccinct and to the point.
Before the days of cameras, artists had only plein aire painting or imagination as a basis for their work. While imagination produces endless images, these visions are private. These visual inventions are meaningful to their creator but are really a personal language. That sort of painting, those dreamed-up pictures, I call painting-by-ear. Those imagined views are never quite convincing without information that is believable to the viewer.
The camera changed everything for the painter. When Muybridge invented the camera, or perhaps I should say perfected the camera, it became possible to see a running horse or a jumping man in stopped motion. This process provided a common visual language that supplied information to the artist and his audience. The fly in the ointment, however, was the temptation for the painter to simply copy the photograph without pointing out to the viewer the parts or ideas that the artist found important. This brings us back to plein aire artistry where time and conditions force the artist to choose decisively what to include and what to leave out.
For many years I have combined this selective process with the photographic gathering of information. I call it building a painting, because I do choose what I think are the important bits from many sources to make a new whole. I hope that by using enough common information, I will be able to invite the viewer into my imagined vision. The painting shown here is a considered constructed piece that shows Marilyn and me plein aire painting in Eastern Ontario, and so does include the two approaches in one.
For almost forty years, I have painted on an almost daily basis. Rather than being jaded by the process, I am increasingly excited by this game. I agree with our four-year-old friend who said, “My whole life I’ve wanted to be an artist.”