Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How Plein Air painting differs from Perceptual Painting

March 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Art Politics, why painting perceptions

Rackstrawn Downes vs. Kevin MacPherson Two extremes in painting nature from life.

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.

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17 Responses to “How Plein Air painting differs from Perceptual Painting”
  1. Erik Halvorsen says:

    Wonderful post. I look forward future thoughts on this subject. I just stumbled upon this blog…I remember your work from the nell forum a while ago. Fantastic stuff. Thanks for the blog, I can’t wait to read more.

  2. jeff says:

    I do a fair amount of outdoor painting. I have to say I like Downs work a lot more than MacPherson’s. If I had to pick a Plein Air painter it would be Clyde Aspevig who I think is a far better painter then MacPherson.

    There are other painters such as Jason Collins who looks to nature and tries to get it as close to that ideal. Which to me seems more a combination perceptual and working from life.

    Which is what I like myself.
    The hobby world of plein air painting is not one I am into.
    I studied with Frank Mason who in turn was a student of Frank DuMond. DuMond had a very specific palette, that is something that most weekend or part time plein air painters would run away from, as it involves a lot of mixing of paint and values.

    I guess there is room for both.
    Marc Dalessio is another landscape painter who uses both ideas as well.

    • Larry says:

      I agree that Kevin MacPherson’s work is not “the best” of the plein air painters – only one of the more prominent or better marketer. I do think some of his work is quite strong and wonderful but overall I find much of his work rather hastily made and drawing is wanting, color too fuzzy and non-specific, and seems to fall into a more formula driven attitude towards making his work. You are right that he does tend to appeal to the “hobby world” of plein air painting. But I think that it’s interesting phenomena that drives so many people to this kind of painting but then tend to ignore other contemporary painter’s working outdoors from life, like Downes’ work.

      My article here was perhaps too vague as I didn’t feel comfortable getting too confrontational towards the plein air movement – as there are many painters in that genre who I feel are good painters and make some interesting painting – I find it hard to dismiss them entirely. My hope is more to expose more people to the great paintings I have been able to find, maybe a few people will get inspired to think about their subject matter in new ways by seeing some of this work.

      Many times not being able to see the work in person (I live in San Diego where there isn’t many nearby venues for seeing great art) puts me at a disadvantage in being able to talk about work with any real insight.

      I did see Marc Dalessio’s plein air landscape, much of it I saw was very impressive. I will try to have a post here about his work soon.

  3. Rebecca Harp says:

    Thank you so very much for sharing your thoughts…I had begun to feel very very alone in my perceptual endeavors in painting. I am currently taking a break from painting out on the streets because of the astounding number of people who interrupt me to ask me why on earth I am painting what I am painting. In these moments I often look at Antonio Lopez Garcia to regain my courage. I will definitely come back for further browsing, thanks again.

    • Larry says:

      Your welcome Rebecca and you are most definitely not alone. Too many people don’t have much insight into what can make for an engaging painting and think only the traditionally picturesque is worthy.

      I hope to make more post along this vein and hopefully generate more discussion. However, my rambles alone probably won’t be interesting enough to draw like minded painters to engage in conversation – but if more of us start a dialog then maybe we can start something even more worthwhile. Hope you’ll post again soon.

  4. Robert Brown says:

    Glad to see a post about Rackstraw Downes, who deserves a wide audience. He’s an inspiration to outdoor painters who want to slow up to extend and expand paintings over a longer period of time. One never grows tired of looking at his work.

  5. Here’s a link to an introduction that my husband wrote as a curator of a landscape painting exhibition from the Ohr Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, where we were unfortunate enough to be living during Katrina. This was the first major exhibition to be held after the hurricane.
    He’s a European, academically trained in conceptual art, which he rejected in favor of perceptual painting.
    He now lives in Arizona and has recently taken on the job of teaching plein air to the regional painters in Sedona. He’s slowly turning plein air on its head here, and his students adore the education in composition and tonality.

    • Bernard says:

      I truly enjoy Pates’ work. That it is constructed of solid definitons and shapes which defy the “realism” of realism at times,is evident yet his work is still of the figurative realm – though “personally” perceived – as all artwork creations are. I don’t get the “ism” thing being discussed. But hthen, maybe I’m just old. . .

  6. james says:

    I am definitely of the camp of Rackstraw Downes visual sensibility….having come from a photographic and philosophy background …this is the direction I see and feel for my painting…I still explore photography…
    While in University it was a constant mind wrenching stuggle to feel valid in the sea of contemporary craft less painting style….as I was thrown in to the camp of doing crafty style “realist” work….Hence the area of the backgrounds of my professors was kinda of that vein.. but some would tell me in confidence that they valued my courage to hold steadfast in my approach…However it still gets kicked around and finding that voice and approach is getting easier. Thanks for your site…I would like to say that the figure can “figure” promently in this area of Perceptual Painting…don’t you think….And would always like to hear what you are reading to re-inforce the area of discussion and thought. Thanks

  7. What an excellent blog this is ! Thank you for your thoughts and I appreciate what you have written here :)

  8. It seems to me that the artistic merit of a painting has more to do with the motivation than the method. Van Gogh painted quickly, Thomas Kincade painted slowly. There are just as many souless paintings in NYC as there are at a Plein Air festival. It has nothing to do with where the work is shown, how much it costs, whether it’s loose or tight, rooted in tradition or modernist in approach. If you want to paint something with artistic merit, paint honestly. You’ve got to take chances and you’ve got to dig deep. Unfortunately, very personal work can be a tough sell. We can hope that it will eventually be appreciated, but it can take time and it can be very rough on an artist trying to survive. There’s no formula for good art and there’s no rule book and it probably doesn’t do us much good spending time thinking about it. Just keep painting, make it personal, keep it honest and more than likely you’ll create some great art.

    • Bernard says:

      Thomas Kincade!!!!!!!!! Really?

      • Christopher says:

        Down boy. Michael has an excellent point. It isn’t about how it’s made but what it is. Michael was using him as an example of soulless work resulting from a painstaking approach vs. high quality work created with rapid execution, such as Van Gogh’s.

  9. I agree to everything you wrote about this matter. I’m an emerging artist and I find myself as if I’m standing at a fork in the road when it comes to how or what style of painting I should take. The fact is now I will not let that worry me anymore. I like most styles of painting. At one time I would have been labeled as a Perceptual painter, but I love what you can create with Plein Air style as well. So now if you look at my paintings you will see a little of both. I even do some glazing techniques. Sometimes I do all three styles on one painting. As long as the end result is beautiful, that is what matter. One more thing, Perceptual or Plein Air, to get a very nice painting, neither is a walk in the park. With that said, check out Warwick Fuller.

  10. Bernard says:

    An article filled with generalizations and hints of “belittling” of other visual art styles in order to heighten the value of “perceptual ” pursuits is far from being academic, factual or realitic (no pun intended). And please, graduate students from most (generalization here) visual art faculties are definitely NOT “experts” in the definition of what is or is not “kitsch” in contemporary artwork creation.

  11. Great article! I’ll have my landscape painters read it for sure. \

  12. Fergus Ryan says:

    Enjoyable as always. Larry. I’m still not sure after reading this that I understand how the word ‘perceptual’ is being used. If the plein air painters on the one hand are simply idealising nature, and Downes on the other almost producing a photographic represention, albeit on site, where do the works of the Jerusalem Studio School fit in? After all, there is a very similar palette of desaturated colours and extreme simplification to almost abstract shapes in most works—which is scarcely what is actually ‘perceived’. This too, surely, is some kind of stylisation, if not idealisation? So, what exactly IS perceptual? Or is this just another word looking for a definition?

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