En Plein Air
Artists’ online forums are interesting places. For a start they are an ideal way for artists to share interests and concerns even though they are located miles apart and are unlikely ever to meet face to face. Just recently I came across a thread about painting ‘en plein air.’ Some contributors had never painted outdoors and were seeking advice about how to begin, others were enthusiasts. Video tutorials inevitably have a sequence of the painter with his easel set up at an outdoor location demonstrating an oil or watercolour suggesting to beginners that this is the way to work.
Certainly when I started to paint seriously in watercolour the loose style of Seago and Wesson was the flavour of the month. Tales circulated of how Ted Wesson would dash off his characteristic freely handled watercolours done sur le motif as demonstrations for students on his courses. This was the accepted way of working and it had to be done en plein air.
I was once infected by the same enthusiasm and used to set out with easel, portfolio containing drawing board and paper, haversack with watercolour materials – a massive weight of gear. Then I saw a TV broadcast about David Gentleman – he just set out with a camping stool and haversack over his shoulder. At his chosen location he just sat on the stool and worked in a sketchbook on his knee with water pot placed on the ground with easy reach. That’s how I work outdoors now.
Unless your sole aim is to be a Wesson disciple it’s rarely worth attempting to make a finished watercolour in front of the subject – I’ve wasted many sheets of watercolour paper by trying.
A myth has taken root about painting en plein air which arises from misconceptions about impressionism. It was generally thought that the Impressionists completed their canvases outdoors in front of the motif. John House in ‘Landscape into Art’ describes Monet’s methods in some detail. Although Monet took his canvases almost to completion en plein air he rarely produced a final work in front to the subject. Particularly from about 1880 on most of his outdoor studies were refined later after a period of reflection in the studio.. His salon submissions often have the characteristics of studio work which suggests that he regarded his outdoor paintings chiefly as studies.
Another misconception is that the Impressionists cared nothing about composition and simply accepted the random arrangements of the natural world. Monet in fact spent time exploring a new location for good viewpoints and made quick linear sketches of motifs in a sketchbook. So when he set off with his easel and canvasses he probably carried in his mind an idea for a composition..