It’s spring, and for most landscape painters that means plein air painting season. While flipping through an old issue of Plein Air magazine from January 2005, I came across an article by Matt Smith, a leading plein air painter and teaching artist. His words echoed my own beliefs that plein air painting and studio painting were different expressions of the same art form, yet each worked to support the other. Reprinted here is Matt’s story, which reveals how the synergy between the studio and plein air two has helped him become a better painter. See more of Matt’s work at his website: mattsmithstudio.com
by Matt Smith
excerpted from the article in the January 2005 issue of Plein Air magazine
Today, plein air painting has become very popular, even though it has been practiced for hundreds of years. It has been exciting to observe its recent growth in popularity, and the increase in related painting events attests to this popularity. There have been pluses and minuses associated with plein air painting. One plus is the attention it has brought to art in general while often serving as a platform to raise funds for preservation or environmentally sensitive landscapes. One drawback is the misconception of people who see plein air as simply a style of painting, rather than a necessary means to improving the result. For example, the plein air paintings of Carl Rungius are loose and impressionistic, while those of William R. Leigh are highly rendered and more academic in nature. However, both artists’ field paintings display a spirit and the expressive quality of works created from direct observation.
In an effort to supplement my formal art education, which led to a BFA degree in painting from Arizona State University, I began searching for artists whose work I admired, and I contacted them for critique and advice. The two common offerings of advice were to focus on the fundamentals and to paint from life.
Obviously, painting the landscape from life meant going out into the field to work. At first, I was lost, because I no longer had the control that comes from working in a studio environment. However, my desire to improve and be close to my subject kept me returning to the field. I stuck with it and spent the next few years working almost exclusively outdoors. This laid the foundation that guides my work to this day.
My travels and expeditions into the field, along with the changes and excitement that came with them, lured me out of the studio. It had gotten to the point where I did not want to turn back to the studio. At the same time, I knew I would have to return in order to inject my philosophies and artistic vision into my paintings. In other words, the studio was an environment to develop this artistic vision, while working en plein air helped inject the spirit and presence of the subject into my work.
As time progressed, I began to paint subjects of increasing complexity. I started to realize the importance of studio time as a factor in improving my field work — just as my plein air paintings are intended to improve my indoor work. Simply put, I learned that the two are synergistic. For me, one cannot exist without the other.
My time in the controlled environment — my studio — allowed me to develop paintings over days and weeks, rather than an hour or two, as is the case in the field. I was able to focus on academics: the basics of drawing, value, design and color. When I returned to the field, I experienced a renewed confidence and a realization of the importance of balance between field and studio.
Over time, the long inside hours helped me develop a more unique and personalized artistic direction, i.e., style and philosophy. This is not to suggest that artistic development does not occur outdoors. It does. However, when time to produce a painting is restricted by conditions such as moving light, one tends to respond on a more emotional basis, rather than an intellectual one. My experience is that working in the studio brings about the latter. Surely, this is not the same for all artists, but it is my experience that there is an absolute and delicate balance between the two.
One major difference between these environments is that I always work alone in the studio, while I tend to paint with fellow artists when in the field. Working with others provides a forum for the free exchange of ideas and frank on-the-spot critiques, which directly influence the improvement of my work. One of my philosophical fundamentals is that improvement is a lifelong process, so I accept critiques as a given in the achievement of continuous growth.
Increased interest in plein air has reached the point where it does not seem to matter whether a piece is good or not. It seems to matter whether it was painted en plein air, as opposed to in the studio. It is as though the process has become more important than the painting itself. We all have to clarify this misapprehension. Whether a painting has been created on location or in the studio, a good painting is good painting.
Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Chapter 3: Indoor and Outdoor Studios