“Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists.” Marcel Proust
Painting plein air may seem like a straight forward process. Once you get to the location, you set the easel, squeeze plenty of paints on the palette, get the brushes, and start to create on the canvas a resemblance of the landscape stretching ahead. Sky, earth, trees, bushes, grass, people, houses, fences – the elements offers themselves in abundance, eager to get their place on canvas. Many painters skillfully work their way to create a copy of the nature. Some even use a view finder attached to their easel at eye level, and paint exactly and precisely what they see through the cut-out. Their work is correct, but a hard-to-express dissatisfaction lingers as you see the result. There is nothing obvious to complain about: the proportions are right, the perspective convincing, the drawing holds together, the colors are realistically represented. It is almost irritating that such masterly skills were used for such a limited purpose - a mirror-like rendering of the nature.
And then you watch another artist at work. First she seems to idle, taking her time, more interested to wander around than to start the painting. She looks up at the sky for a long time, in all directions, and slowly sets up her easel. She is “feeling” the place, allows it to decant through her senses, and waits to see what holds her attention today, in this light. There may be many elements in the landscape, but only a few will make it through the artist’s process of selection, and will become part of the final composition. Finally, all the materials are ready. The painter is taking some time to stare at the blank canvas. She is painting first with her mind’s eye. Once a feeling of the place is identified, different compositions are virtually painted and discarded, different color schemes are virtually tested. Sometimes a couple of stamp-size drawing and oil studies are done rapidly, to condense and capture a passing light effect. Finally, the visible work starts. It seems easy, and it progresses rapidly. An hour or two later, it is time to stop, as the light is completely different, and the landscape is practically transformed. It is time to put away the canvas.
Later, in the studio, the artist takes another look at the plein air work. Some purists consider unacceptable to make any changes in the studio, but I favor any chance to improve the painting. The flavor of the vision lingers, and some touchup refines the piece. Here is an example: the plein air work, and its touchup version done in the studio.
The Magic Show, oil on canvas, 10 x 10 in
As I parked the car facing west, I noticed another car stopped on the other side of the road, its driver admiring the spectacular sunrise. However, I was interested in the thin line of pink clouds hovering over the golden treetop. While I was getting the paints ready, out of nowhere, a warm yellow fluffy cloud appeared high in the sky. I decided on the spot to skip making the usual small sketch, and started to put the cloud up in the sky of the canvas. Then another yellowish cloud showed up. By the time I got them on the canvas, the thin line of rose clouds unrolled to a high field of blue-gray and pink clouds, covering most of the sky. The next hours passed in a blink. Soon, it was time to stop painting – overpainting is a sure way to kill the painting, especially in plein air. I got out of the car to take some photos toward east, and spent some time watching a singing bird high on a wire, like a musical note of a staff.
And then I turn to take a photo of the field of clouds I have just painted. Surprise: no one cloud in sight! The painting was done, the show was over, the clouds were gone. It felt like the nature put up a show just for the artist to paint. There is no need to look for inspiration – everything is worth painting, everything is worth celebrating.