There is definitely a resurgence in plein air painting going on right now. Especially watercolor painters understand their medium is the best for painting finished paintings on site. But plein air does have it’s limitations and that’s what this blogpost is about.
First the part that makes plein air so important: there is a wide variety in color nuances in Nature that cameras ‘don’t see’. Same goes for the values, the human eye is so much better understanding different qualities of values (in shadows, for instance).
What’s not working so well is painting a more accomplished piece, especially in a bigger size. By that I don’t necessarily mean more detailed, but more elaborated and more thought out.
Plein air is always rushed and for obvious reasons: light’s changing, you can’t spend all day thinking about what to do next.
Once you have a painting you did outside and combine it with photo references you’ll be able to paint a more accomplished version. The wonderful thing is, it will still have the same spontaneity to it, almost like the on-location work.
To illustrate what I mean have a look at the two images here. The first one was done on location. I am tempted to call it the Violin player since I had to endure his playing the same three pieces over and over (let’s just say he wasn’t a virtuoso)
The second one, done in the studio, is larger (14×20 inches) and I have made a bigger effort working out the shadows and ‘controlled chaos’ in the areas where the focal point is.
Something I would not have had time for outside.
Other problems with plein air painting is often the subject itself: 90% of the scenes you encounter are not paintable as they are.
So you end up changing it, making stuff up. While that works most of the time, it’s easy to get suckered into painting a scene that is just not suitable for painting.
Some plein air painters change the scene so much, it almost looks like something from another place. I don’t believe in that. If I paint plein air, my goal is to catch the mood of the scene before me. Otherwise, I might as well make up a painting from a photograph. No need to go outside if you don’t paint what’s there!
Without having painted outside, I would’ve not ‘understood’ the colors in these buildings. Only by painting while looking right at the real thing is this possible. A big thing for me is to be actually there and taking it in with all the senses. Seeing, smelling, walking through it… some of that will go into the painting! Sometimes, the better painting is the one done on-site. Other times it’s the one done in the studio! You just never know!