How Plein Air painting differs from Perceptual Painting
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately on the difference is between the popular Plein Air painting you see in magazines like Southwest Art or American Artist and perceptual painting done outdoors that tends to be more modernist in orientation and hanging in NYC Chelsea Galleries. Even though they may paint the same subjects outdoors from observation, when you compare these two approaches it’s immediately obvious how widely different their viewpoints are.
Many “western art” or other regional art Plein Air painters sometimes dismiss modernism and post-modernism as elitist, irrelevant. crass or just don’t concern themselves with contemporary art outside of the popular Plein Air genre. Many plein air paintings champion notions of the ideal past where little evidence of modern life is in view. If they form any theory about what and why they are painting nature it is more likely to be along the lines of celebrating “God’s creations” or perhaps to show all the forms of the glory of nature and the need to protect and preserve it. Or perhaps they just enjoy painting outside and show their work to like minded people who enjoy nature. Rarely do you see plein air painting that speaks issues involving modernist or post-modern painting and plein air painters are more likely to look to French or early California Impressionists, Hudson River Painters and other 19th plein air landscape painters. The absence of controversial subject matter and the affordable pricing of their work tends to make them more popular to the mainstream art buyer and conservative audiences.
Cutting edged graduates of many Art Schools often dismiss Plein Air painting as sellout kitch, provincial, irrelevant and/or just bad art that caters to the low-brow masses. Some, of a post modern conceptualist persuasion, would turn their back to any painting that wasn’t about the bigger issues of sex, war, oppression, depravity or anything with high volume shock value. Little paintings of sea cliffs or mountain views are barely more than motel painting in their eyes. Perhaps discounting art that doesn’t include some type of figurative narrative further refines this critique. This mindset seems to mimic the academic hierarchy of subject matter suitable for painting in the 18th and 19th century where History painting was elevated above all and where still life and landscape were assigned lesser status.
Some landscape/cityscape painters, like me, feel trapped between these two camps, believing that great painting can be made of sea cliffs and mountains and painting outside doesn’t have to mean you turn your back on great modern painting or theory. After all the grandfather of Modernism, Cezanne, was the quintessential perceptual plein air painter who not only looked to nature but the art of the museums as well. Many Perceptual painters also don’t address the big issues of poverty, racism and war and instead turn their attention to art itself – finding art and beauty in the mundane and unexpected of nature as it is seen today, completed with both treasure and trash; ancient and modern. Sometime the perceptual painters find themselves along side the plein air painters, both locked out behind the high gates of the post modernist art world.
It’s easier to look at two leading examples of each approach, each genre is too broad for any one artist to adequately represent them but Kevin Macpherson who is one of the more successful popular Plein Air painters and Rackstraw Downes who is a giant in realist painting from life outdoors (even though I doubt if he would refer himself as a perceptual painter)
Rackstraw Downes, Water-Flow monitoring station on the Rio Grande near Presidio, Tx. part 3 facing south, the flood-plain from west of the gauge shelter, 4 pm, 2002-03,
28 1/2 x 42″, oil on canvas, Betty Cuningham Gallery
Even before looking at the artwork you can make a few observations on the totally different approach in their display and marketing of their work. Kevin Macpherson has a large website that not only promotes artwork and galleries but seems to focus on his instructional DVD’s and books, workshops, endorsements for plein air equipment and folksy messages. Macpherson is making his living by selling his skillset and endorsements to his admiring fan base.
Rackstraw Downes has no website other than the pages his gallery puts up for him as well as a Wikipedia page Of course, you can find out a great deal about him online, like this article about him by David Cohen at ArtCritical.com It’s unfair to judge harshly these different styles in marketing as they aren’t speaking to the same audiences. Rackstraw Downes paintings get sold for up to 100 grand and doesn’t appeal to the hobbyist painter or middle American tastes, instead showing in musuems and his high-end NYC Betty Cuningham gallery.
Kevin MacPherson, Maui Overlook, 8 x 10, Redfern Gallery
Plein Air works, like those of Macpherson, often idealize nature despite working directly from life. When working quickly to capture the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere you need to greatly simplify the color, forms and light to make the painting work. But in simplifying, many plein air painters often push that simplification to sweeten and intensify the color and editorialize landscape elements often resulting in a dramatic landscape or even idealized landscape – devoid of unseemly traces of mundane modern life. Much of plein air painting likes to see the landscape as unspoiled by human touch, to return to a more pastoral time before Freeway congestion, tract housing and Abstract painting. Rackstraw, on the other hand, revels in painting everyday modern and mundane life as faithfully as possible. He makes panoramic paintings, sometimes with insane dimensions like 15″ x 120″ of rural Maine, the Presidio, Texas, and the Manhattan cityscapes, and various industrial vistas of New Jersey and elsewhere.
Rackstraw Downes, Olson’s Reunion , 26″ x 24″, Oil on Canvas
An Art in America article said of his intense observation and fidelity to detail that “you can feel confident that he paints every rivet in his bridge girders” He spends months if not years working plein air on site with often with larger paintings on two easels. He tends to use smaller brushes and very carefully works up the surface to get an exactitude more common with photorealism than plein air. However, it is immediately apparent that he is working from life and not a photo. There is a depth and visual richness to the work that is often absent in works done in the studio. While he only paints what he actually sees, he doesn’t use the expected traditional perspective and often incorporates something akin to a fish-eye perspective with a curved horizon line.
Kevin MacPherson, Valley View, 18 x 24, Redfern Gallery
There is a wonderful feel for MacPherson’s slightly pushed color and loose brushwork show a freshness and joy that makes his work so charming. However, compared to Rackstraw’s intense draftsmanship, his drawing in the paintings seems more stylized and less carefully observed. Many times Plein air artists will work their painting in only one or two sittings – with some touch up in the studio. MacPherson’s type of plein air approach appeals to hobbyists as it seems more in reach to something they might do too, if they take the workshop, read the book and watch the DVD. On the other hand, looking at the drawing and painting skill involved in Rackstaw’s painting might induce the hobbyist to forget painting and take up stamp collecting instead or just shake their heads on why someone would find empty parking lots an appealing subject matter.
Careful preparatory drawing or study prior to plein air work is not something commonly seen, sometimes stylized drawing can be the result. Whether conscious or not, some plein air painters tend to fall, into formulas like how a pine tree is drawn vs how this particular pine tree is much smaller and leans 15 degrees left and a 1/3 of its branches are missing on the bottom. It often comes down to editorializing nature – gussying it up to look like you think it should look rather than what is actually in front of you. However, with MacPherson’s work the paintings tend to be quite small and intimate and concerned more with the play of light and color and natural beauty than exactitude in drawing. His work looks to compositional notions of how the foliage, rocks or light and dark passages moves and keeps the viewers eye in the painting as opposed to copying exactly how many cracks on a rock formation or branches on a tree.
Many perceptual painters, on the other hand, often go to great lengths to get the drawing exactly right in terms of both what is in front of them and in terms of what the painting needs. Perhaps a perfect example of this in the magnificent movie about Antonio Lopez Garcia, Victor Erice’s “Dream of Light” (1993) Where Antonio draw the fruit of a Quince tree and draws plum lines all over the tree and back wall to get the exact relationships between one Quince and leaf to another. Antonio Lopez Garcia is perhaps the ultimate perceptual painter but is this really the model we should all seek to emulate? I think not, everyone should tend their own paths through nature, to just follow someone else’s path often will take you to crowds where your own voice is lost.
There is no conclusion yet to this series of rambles. Clearly both “camps” have their ups and downs. I will try to post more on this issue as I get the time and can think of something intelligent to say. Hopefully others can comment what they think and get a dialog going here.