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Debate: Must 'Plein Air' Be Defined?

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There are very few rules in art, which may be what draws a lot of rules-are-meant-to-be-broken types to this field, but artists (like everyone else) want to know that the terms they use are understood in the same way by others. Take, for example, the term painting "plein air," a French expression meaning "open air" (and used colloquially by the French for camping and outdoor sports) that refers to creating a work of art outside. First practiced by John Constable in England and the French Barbizon School in the early- to mid-19th century and made famous later in the century by the Impressionists, plein air painting emphasized direct observation of nature rather than a narrative and stylized studio depiction. These 19th century artists weren't dogmatic about what they did and where they did it, however, often starting a painting outside and finishing it in the studio, or vice versa. Their artistic successors have sought to bring more definitional clarity to a term the Impressionists never used. According to the Great Lakes Plein Air Painters Association, a "true plein air painting is always completed from beginning to end on site with the subject matter before the artist," while the National Association of Professional Plein Air Painters sets a standard of "90% completed on site and painted from life" and the Genesee Valley (New York) Plein Air Painters posits that "85 percent of your painting must be completed on site." An even more liberal reading of the term is offered by the Ohio Plein Air Society, whose president John Browning believes that "no more than 40 percent of the work is completed off-site."

The broad and elastic use of "plein air" has proven irksome to artists and groups that have sought to establish this type of art as its own category, with exhibitions and competitions, distinct from other forms of landscape painting. Conversations with artists and online forums at art Web sites indicate considerable disagreement and even instances of one painter accusing another of cheating using the term plein air. Nancy Tankersley, a painter and gallery owner in Baltimore, Maryland, described an instance of an artist at a plein air competition taking a painting into the bathroom "to straighten up a telephone pole." Don Demers, a painter in Eliot, Maine and member of Plein Air Painters of America, stated that "there have been some egregious violations of what I think plein air painting is. There was one artist who went out to paint on location with a group of other artists -- I was one of them -- and this person did a few sketches and shot a roll of film, which he had developed at some one-hour place. Then, he stayed up all night in his hotel room, completing paintings that he called plein air." Another example he described was an artist who went out with a group on a gray, overcast day, returning several hours later with a plein air painting of a glowing sunset, "and, of course, it sold right away."

Demers himself has fended off charges that his own work does not truly qualify as plein air since he tends to put a considerable amount of detail into his paintings, "which makes people not believe I could have done all that while outside," and because his style is a tight realism "and a lot of people believe that plein air painting is Impressionistic. I've been discriminated against." The close association of plein air painting and an Impressionist style of brushwork is a widely shared belief, first propounded by Ruth Westphal, whose two art historical books of plein air painting in California, published back in the 1980s, is thought to have revived interest in this type of artmaking. "Plein air means outdoors," Westphal, who lives in Newport Beach, California, said. "The other elements that define plein air painting are an interest in light and the evanescence of light, colors set next to each other and not mixed to show changes in light, and built up areas of impasto." She noted that it is "OK to use photographs back in the studio - the Impressionists did - but the style needs to be Impressionistic. It can't be photo-realistic. No small brush strokes."

Demers is not the only artist not to fit a certain mold. "Plein air" means "outside," according to Camille Przewodek, a painter who served as the jurist for the Easton! Painting Competition and Arts Festival in Maryland in 2005. "The whole thing has to be done outdoors." However, Brian Stewart of Maplewood, Minnesota claims to be a plein air painter -- "My definition of plein air is working directly from nature, direct observation," he said -- but has been excluded from some plein air exhibitions, because he paints indoor as well as outdoor scenes. "It's all done on location, with direct observation, but I'm not a slave to the outdoors." Przewodek herself acknowledges that there can be exceptions to the outdoors definition: "A north light studio can be plein air, as long as you're not using photographs." She also backed up on the issue of "the whole thing" being done outdoors, noting that she regularly will "tweak" a plein air painting back in the studio, fixing colors or forms but claiming that "95 percent" of the actual painting was done on location. The 19th century French Barbizon and Impressionist artists usually finished their paintings back in their studios, unconcerned about the percentage of time spent inside or out, but many of today's plein air painters strive for a purity that was unknown to the movement's founders.

Browning referred to "an ongoing discussion within our own group" as to the definition of plein air, noting that the society doesn't want to limit its membership by crafting too narrow a reading of the term. Older members, for instance, would be at a disadvantage if they were required to carry 20 or 30 pounds of art supplies to some location, and so are permitted to just take a sketch pad and make their paintings back in a studio. Flexibility is also important in more northerly states where winters are prolonged and cold ("I'm from Michigan," said San Luis Obispo, California painter Ken Christensen, "but the winters are too long there, so I moved here because I can paint outdoors more of the year"), which may explain why more plein air groups are found in the south. Perhaps, the definition of plein air painting should vary with latitude of the definer. "We try to adhere to what we call the spirit of plein air painting, insisting only that work be started on the site," Browning said, adding that the use of photographs is not taboo and that members "operate on an honor basis" that they only spent 40 percent of their painting time in the studio. That same discussion takes place among members of the Plein Air Painters of America, where artists "primarily working outdoors," although "you have an opportunity to make corrections or do touch-ups in the studio," said the group's publicist Susan Hallsten McGarry. In addition, some members of the national group create "studio paintings done from field sketches or watercolors made outside, and others use photographs as detail information," all still qualifying as plein air.

Definitions and rules become stricter for exhibitions and competitions. At the contests, sometimes called "Paint-Outs" and usually taking place over two, three or four days, artists often have their panels or watercolor papers stamped on the back at the beginning of the event, indicating that they preliminary work had been done. A few events stamp works after the competition to confirm that all painting was done outside and on location. There is no limit to the number of paintings an artist may create over the course of the event, and some of the longer paint-outs cover as many as four days; the paintings, papers and panels remain with the artist during the time, making it difficult to know definitively if a painting was created back in a hotel room.

Exhibitions are even trickier to police, since none of the judges or other artists were likely around to see how and where a particular painter worked. "I could tell the difference," Demers said. It's a technical thing: In a plein air painting, you're going to see one application of paint, or wet on wet paint, not wet on dry. If you see wet on dry, that was more likely done in the studio." Of course, he added, that only applies to artists who complete their painting in one session, but it has no relevance to Pamela Simpson, an artist in Woodstock, Connecticut and member of Connecticut Plein Air Painters and the National Academy of Plein Air Painters, who on occasion has "gone out 20 or so times on a single piece," each time on location, allowing plenty of time for paint layers to dry.

Other seeming telltale signs of having been done in the studio rather than out-of-doors may also be misleading, reflecting differences in style rather than the manner of painting. "I can definitely tell when someone is working from photographs," said Gavin Brooks, an artist in Riderwood, Maryland who creates both plein air and studio paintings. "The paintings are more hard-edge and contrasty, and the colors and values are incorrect. Photographs lie to you a little bit." However, Brooks noted that she "can't tell if an artist worked from a color sketch."

Perhaps the most difficult thing to determine is how much any of this matters (and to whom it matters -- collectors or just artists seeking status among themselves). No one currently is holding a calculator to figure out how much time an artist spends outside, and it is unlikely that, one hundred years from now, the issue will gain any more weight. The definition of plein air painting, however, has both a moral and a practical aspect, which has raised the stakes for artists. On the moral side is the belief that plein air painting embodies a certain truth, reflecting the immediacy of the moment when the artist is at work, needing to make compositional and color value decisions quickly before the clouds roll in or the wind kicks up. Often, the artwork looks rougher, less finished, than pieces executed in full or in part in a studio. By contrast, studio paintings of nature or other representational imagery frequently involve other elements, such as memories and a more intellectual analysis of form and content. One is not better than the other, but the plein air works may seem more like a rough draft, in the same way that a drawing often brings the viewer closer to an artist's original inspiration than a finished studio painting. For many artists, calling a painting plein air that was not almost entirely created on location would be equivalent to lying.

On the practical side, artists have sought to turn plein air painting into a sort of brand, like drawing or watercolors, which can be marketed to a group of collectors. There is a growing number of plein air groups, perhaps more than 50 in all, the majority of them in the states of California and Florida, but others have been established throughout the country, and all of them are relatively recent. For example, both the International Association of Plein Air Painters and Plein Air Austin (Texas), for instance, were founded in 2001, while Ohio Plein Air Society came into being in 2003, Plein Air New Mexico began in 2004 and Genesee Valley Plein Air Painters started up in 2005. Through member exhibitions and Paint-Outs, they have sought to attract buyers who will come again and again, perhaps specializing in this type of artwork. "Collectors become interested, because they see a picture happening before their eyes," said Jacqueline Baldini, founder and executive director of the International Association of Plein Art Painters. "People relate to the poetry you capture."

Plein air painting has other appeals to collectors. Since the works are created quickly and generally are small -- 20" x 30" at the largest, and many are as small as 5" x 7" - they tend to be more affordable than paintings created over a longer period of time in a studio. Gavin Brooks said that she produces 300 9" x 12" plein air paintings and between 12 and 15 36" x 36" studio paintings per year. Many of the outdoor paintings are used as preliminary studies for pieces she creates in the studio, but she still sells 50-60 of them annually, at $1,000 apiece, while the studio paintings get sold at $7,000 each.

Plein air paintings "are the new prints, the new drawings," Brooks said. "They are more long-lasting than a drawing. They are a great way to capture the style of an artist at a price level that many collectors can afford."