Plein Air

John Jacobsen
Saturday, August 27, 2011

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Figure 1: Today’s painting — Town Line Road at OO, oil on panel, 8“x10”

I’ve had a week off and have been painting outside, at my mom’s house out in the country near Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. The investment which has made this possible is called a pochade box which is essentially a small portable easel which fits on a tripod. The one I got is called the Prochade by Artwork Essentials. So far I’m pretty happy with it, and slightly amazed and bemused at how fun it is to use.

I’ve had a lot of resistance to painting outside over the years. The few times I’ve done it have been enjoyable, but something about the bugs, the cold, the heat, the sun, the rain, the lightning, the tornadoes, the spectators, earthquakes, muggers, cosmic rays, etc. has kept me from doing much of it. And my passion has always been surrealism, fantasy & sci fi, nudes, painting from imagination, the darker architecture of private spaces. Many of my favorite artists also work this way, and I don’t think I met anyone in art school who painted from life outdoors (or who admitted to doing so) … painting outside seemed almost corny, a Sunday painter’s habit.

Lately, however, I’ve been interested in getting out there and working from nature. Possibly some of that interest is thanks to blogs like James Gurney’s. Gurney interests me because he is an artist of the fantastic (see his Sci Fi book covers or the Dinotopia series), but is also an avid plein-air painter, which very much informs his fantastic work. (He even goes so far as to build sculptures or ‘maquettes’ of his characters so as to be able to see and paint the real, natural light on them.)

I’m also interested in making some slower, visual contact with the real world, and perhaps ever so slightly less interested in aesthetic navel-gazing (though I’m still very interested in painting imaginary worlds).

Usually I paint sitting down at my easel in the studio, with a computer, music, food, etc. all close at hand. I never liked painting standing up in the studio; but standing up alone outside for a few hours is surprisingly easy and pleasant. Also it is really nice to be away from computers for awhile (an iPod can be nice while painting outside, though being in the actual space with the crickets and the wind is part of the experience too).

The French term for painting outdoors is “en plein air” — which could be re-translated as “in the full air”. There is something pleasant and “airy” about just choosing a subject and painting it alla prima — no preliminary sketches, no layers of glazes, photo transfers, reference materials, SketchUp studies or traumatic mid-stream adjustments of content — just walk up to the easel and make a painting! I finished three paintings this week… my rate in the studio is sometimes less than three per year. Plus the paintings themselves are more lightweight — things I could just destroy or give away as gifts rather than agonize for months about whether they’re done, where to show them, how much to charge for them, etc.

I love photography and take lots of photographs in addition to the studio paintings. Painting with the pochade box combines some of the things I love about both art forms — you scout your terrain and frame your image (à la photography) and then bring all your gestural and color sensibilities to the material. You just do it, like clicking the shutter, except it takes a couple of hours rather than a couple of milliseconds. In the end your ‘shot’ is juicy, oily, full of bugs, and, maybe, ready to hang on a friend’s wall for awhile. Nice and easy!

Next, maybe we’ll see how it goes painting around Chicago.

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Figure 2: Pochade box in action

Earlier post ISO50 southpole art

Later post Ten southpole

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