Friday, May 16, 2008

Two Day Motif

Many people assume that outdoor paintings are always done alla-prima, or all in one session. There is an undeniable beauty to a painted surface that is kept all wet together. An efficient painter like Bierstadt, Church, or Sargent could interpret a whopping amount of information in just one sitting of an hour or two.

But I believe that many of the legendary studies from nature that we associate with artists like Asher B. Durand were created in two or three consecutive sessions. There would be no other way to complete a study of this complexity. Durand’s letters and journals make a few references to returning to a given location to continue a previous day’s work.

This 18x23 inch study entitled “Study from Nature, Stratton Notch,” appears to be a composite view, combining separate elements from separate locations. We know from his son John’s reports and from his own writing that he often extracted elements from a given scene. I believe in this case he painted the distant mountainscape in one location and then overpainted the backdrop with a fallen log that he found somewhere else.

In my experience, a two-day motif is one of the most satisfying and productive ways to work. As one example, here’s a 10x8 inch study painted on a narrow sidewalk in the city of Clonmel in Ireland. I worked for two hours on the first day to establish the basic drawing and to lay in the sky and the big tones of the buildings. By then the light had utterly changed, and there was no point going on.

By using Liquin as a medium, the oil paint surface was dry within 24 hours. I came back the next morning to find the sunlight just as it was at the beginning, and spent the next two hours working my way from background to foreground through the complex details of the scene.


Anonymous said...

Hi James, Another great post. Im all to familiar with running out of light, and often have to return the next day to continue the piece. I never mind going back the next day, in fact, Im usually excited to return so that I can finish the piece. I like the part about composites, because allot of times, Ill use my plein air studies as backdrops or foregrounds in my studio paintings. The only ingredient that needs to be right is the lighting. Sometimes the lighting in my plein air study will dictate the outcome of the whole studio painting.

Linda Blondheim said...

I am so happy to see you address the issue of alla prima vs plein air. So many painters think that alla prima is the only true plein air and that is nonsense. In my opinion, alla prima is marginal at best. Plein air can be so much more. I like your painting very much.

Linda Blondheim

jeff said...

Interesting post, I often go back more than once.

Of course it all depends on the subject and the light conditions.

I just saw this great show in Boston at the MFA of the Spanish painter Antonio Lopez Garcia, I think he must hold the record for going back to the same spot at the same time for the light affect, 20 years on one painting, it's a very large painting, but he does sometimes spend years on one work from one spot and time.

If anyone is in the Boston area I highly recommend seeing this show.
His pencil drawings are just the most unbelievable drawings I have ever seen.

James Gurney said...

Thanks everyone, and thanks, Jeff, for the notice about Garcia. I love the pieces I've seen by him so far, and would love to see more.

Sarah Stevenson said...

That's a really nice study. I'm hoping to get outdoors this summer and do some plein air work.