Plein air painting. Painting in the “open air”. My first experience with painting on location was way back when I was in college. I don’t remember much about the experience, except that I rode my bike out into the Wisconsin countryside and painted the landscape that I saw. I have no idea what materials I took with me, but my parents still have the two paintings I did that day. It would be about 25 years before I gave it another try.
I did lots of painting between that first try and my next, 25 years later. Those “in between” paintings were at first based on my imagination. I did sketches from life – mostly portraits and still lifes, but they were usually just sketches and I didn’t use them in my paintings. If I needed a reference, I would use a photo.
About 2005, I had a bit of a revelation. At the time, my paintings came from my imagination. I used rich colors, lots of texture, and liked to “play with space” in my paintings. They were representational, but far from “realistic”. An offhand comment from a customer at the gallery that I was showing in challenged me. It was my weekend to sit the gallery, and I overheard a couple talking. “She paints like that because she can’t really paint.”
Well, that comment made me stop and think. Instead of being insulted, I thought, “Of course I can “really” paint. I took it as a challenge. I had never been interested in a realistic style of painting – I loved the post impressionists: Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne, Modigliani, etc. “Realism” was kind of a bad word when I was in college, so it was not a direction that I ever considered pursuing.
So I took that challenge home and started trying to create recognizable portraits. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, but I have always loved a challenge, so I was really enjoying myself. At the time, I was mostly working from photographs. I was also doing lots of reading and I started looking at more realistic artists. I discovered the American artists John Singer Sargent, William Merrit Chase, and Winslow Homer. From all the reading I was doing, it was becoming clear to me that using photographs was not the way to go. To really “see”, I needed to work from life. Unfortunately, it was hard to find models willing to sit for me (I had to ask my generally non-cooperative family members), and I just wasn’t all that interested in doing still lifes.
One weekend, I went with my family to a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I don’t remember what the main show was that we went to see, but there was a smaller exhibit of Southwestern Landscapes that we also saw. There were some paintings there by Maynard Dixon – I was fascinated! The way he simplified the landscape, but still captured its essence, inspired me to attempt a new subject matter. It would be perfect for me because I didn’t have to worry about finding someone to sit for me – I had the whole Mojave Desert right at my feet, literally!
Since discovering Maynard Dixon, I have also discovered other amazing artists – some old, some new. Edgar Payne, Gustav Klimt (his landscapes, though I love his portraits), Edward Hopper, Ian Roberts, Richard Schmid, Eric Merrill, Bill Cramer, among others. They all have different styles, but they have these things in common – they simplify the landscape, capture the light beautifully, and have a command of colors and value that I aspire to one day share. Also, they all have very painterly styles; brushstrokes are very apparent, and details are kept to only those absolutely needed to convey the subject. You know you are looking at a painting when you see their work. I really appreciate paintings that look abstract when you are up close, but come together as a recognizable image when you step away a bit.
So here I am today, painting plein air landscapes. I don’t consider myself a realist, and those gallery customers might still think I can’t really paint, but I am grateful to them for inspiring me to go a different direction in my art than I ever thought I might go.
It’s interesting to see how events in our lives get us to where we are today. What events in your life have influenced your art? I invite you to share your direction changing events in the comments.
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