Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Plein Air and Poetry

Some great painters, such as John Sargent and Anders Zorn, did their most memorable work when they were face-to-face with their motif. Nature is so rich in her inspiration, it's reasonable to ask: how can anyone improve on a plein-air painting?

Isaac Levitan (1860-1900) painted this perfectly competent study on location. It shows a log bridge at the end of a millpond. It is well observed and executed. But it leaves no impression on the imagination.

Back in the studio he refined the image and transformed it into poetry.

He simplified the background row of trees and added a ragged patch of evening clouds. He eliminated the floating log and developed the row of timbers in the lower left. He brought more attention to the uncertain footpath leading from the foreground plank across the three logs to the thin distant trail.

The image suddenly takes on a new interest, not because it is more finished, but because it is better composed. By sifting his direct impressions through the filter of memory and imagination, his work touches the emotions. We stand at the crossing point between our frail human pathway and the downward journey of the falling water, as the sunset prepares to cast us into darkness.

By the Millpond (1892) is one of Levitan’s most beloved works, and it is one of the touchstones of the Russian landscape tradition.


Steve said...

Thought-provoking post. The entire quality of light changes from the plein air to the studio piece. From a predominantly yellow image with limited contrast in values, Levitan cooled off the colors and brought the path into higher contrast. It's possible if Levitan returned to the same site on successive evenings, he could have found that light and created the second painting completely outdoors. But maybe not.

My wife and I know people who insist on painting strictly on location, and never revisit or complete in a studio a piece they began outdoors. It's an honorable point of view, but if Levitan had felt that way we wouldn't have this painting. If painting communicates truth, perhaps we need to trust that truth is portable and we can carry it within us.

Unknown said...

I agree...thought provoking post. Edgar Payne from what I read never displayed his Plein Air. He used them as studies and went back into the studio to refine his composition.

Tim said...

Once again you've read my mind. It was only a few days ago that I was pondering the exact same thing, how to transform my pleine air studies on my blog to something more worthwhile during the hard winter months here in Sweden. Some of them I have now come to regard as visual shorthand (anything that is really fleeting, like a sunset or insane cloud formations. Most of these are executed in under 30 min.) I must say that these are alot of fun to do as well. Arkhip Kuindzhi, Fedor Vasilev and especially Alexsei Savrasov are fellow Wanderers who has GREAT early morning and late evening pieces, and I would love to be able to see what their pleine airs looked like!

Steve, on the other side of the coin is Sorolla, he painted from life outdoors even his VERY large pieces, and I don't think wed have those fresh crazy paintings if he was in a studio. Some painters feed of the outdoors, others the privacy of the studio, and some both. Whatever floats our boats!

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

The poet Wordsworth once said that poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquility." We can apply this to painting, as well. The plein air piece is emotion, directly stated and with what tools, physical as well as mental, that the artist took into the field. Often, tranquility (nor time) is available in sufficient quantity to bring poetry to the scene. For that, we have the studio.

Kendra Melton said...

Lovely! They are both striking in their own ways. Ones an impressive sketch and the other one you could walk into. Levitan never ceases to impress me. Thanks for the inspiration!

Gregory Becker said...

I'll be honest I like them both.

TomHart said...

I don't find the studio version better, just different. For example, I find the distant trees in the plein air much more effective than those in the studio piece. I think the lighting is at least as evocative in the plein air also.

But I've always been drawn to the spontaneity of plein air. I just love to see the balance between accurate observation and the evidence of the artist's hand. Chalk it up to taste, I guess.

Julia Lundman said...

It's a really interesting post. A lot of paintings you see in galleries today, especially in the Southwest, are more in keeping with the first version, the plein air. But I have also seen painters like Scott Christensen and Richard Schmid bring their plein air paintings back to the studio to finish them, which I assume means add a lot of detail that comes from the imagination (imagination as far as color and composition).

I have painted plein air for some time now. Lately I have been finding the results disconnected from me somehow...I hope that makes sense. I have been experimenting a lot lately with adding details to these pieces as well as creating paintings entirely from my imagination.

A friend of mine the other day said there are two kinds of artists: those who observe and those whose art comes from the mind. I suppose an art career is about not only improving technical skill, but also figuring out which camp you fall into.

Shane White said...

The quality of light is so much better in the first and I instinctively know what time of day it is.

The second captures an atmosphere and feeling that the artist is trying to convey. He's no longer recording his experience, but embellishing it to us as one would a story.


Mark Vander Vinne said...

How do you do it? How do you find these images of studies and finished pieces and all? I am truly amazed at your blog.

Beyond that...this holds to what I believe. While a plein air painting can be wonderful in its own right, the studio is where an artist can truly find themselves. Working from life is crucial to get an understanding of what is seen, but (to me) it seems rarely that a plein air piece evokes what was felt. From my experience, that is almost always done back in the studio where you can sit and plan and figure out the best ways to manipulate the principles of painting to best convey the idea you want to get across.

I look at almost all of my favorite artists, and while I believe all painted outdoors, their masterpieces were commonly done inside.

Another great post, Jim.

Koshime said...

This is a great find and dissimilation on the Plein air to refined technique.

For a long time, I found the finish for Plein Aire frustrating, and perhaps resigned to the dude under a canopy or a giant tent, to survive the british outdoors.

The finished painting, and its simplification of its initial live study makes perfect sense, and perhaps a change of mindset to assume plein aire as rapid onset studies: sketchings with colour notations might be key towards a more refined paitning for me

Marc Dalessio said...

I ran across this article the other day, and your post today. Thought you might find it interesting:

Servant said...

The Internet tinkles and the written word reoccurs in time whenever we are ready for its meaning.

I really enjoyed this post and the thoughtful colloquy in the comments.

Thanks to Marc Dalessio for the Pushkin link which provides valuable historical context for Levitan's painting process. This painting by the pond is the result of an epic process with many many other studies, sketches, watercolors, and very very large canvases on site.

Thanks for being such a great collector of art history James. Here is something in return.

James Gurney said...

Thank you, Marc, and Servant, for sharing the context of meaning behind the painting. Added depths!

Zoungy said...

Next week, all week, is the Plein Air West Reading event. I'm one of the juried artists this year, so I'm reading all your posts about Plein Air painting. This is a good one!