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The Two Plein Air Artists

by Keith Bond on 9/5/2011 11:11:40 AM

This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.



Many of you are plein air artists.  Many of you participate in plein air events.  At these events, there are two types of artists.  Those who:


  1. Complete all paintings entirely en plein air.
  2. Finish the paintings in the motel room.


Does it matter?  Should it matter?


I raise the question after a recent, lengthy discussion with a friend of mine on this very topic.


When participating in organized plein air events, some artists complete every painting entirely on location.  With all the challenges of painting on location, some paintings work out and some don’t.  But each is an authentic expression of the moment and place.  Each has magic and spontaneity.  The ones that work, really work.  There is a freshness that could never be captured in the studio.  They are truly plein air paintings.  But by some standards, they are not completed works.  They are studies.


Other artists take the plein air pieces back to the motel room and continue to work on the paintings until happy with the results.  These artists are using their artistic freedom to rework the paintings without the distractions of the outdoors.  They can come to the painting with a fresh eye and see what needs work.  Within the motel room light is more constant, weather isn’t a nuisance, and time constraints are removed.  Motel painters take an average plein air piece and create a finished painting that they are much happier with.


Side by side at the plein air exhibit these two plein air artists’ work is on display. 


The first artist thinks that the second artist cheated or is at least not playing fair.  Tweaking the painting in the motel room, according to the first artist, goes against the very definition of a plein air event.


The second artist considers the first artist’s work unfinished and unrefined.  Or at least, considers his own plein air work unfinished and unrefined.  The end result is more important than where the work was completed.  According to this artist, the event is about selling works that are a direct response to nature.  The ideal or definition of what “plein air” means is less important.


Then there are some who just don’t care.  “I’ll paint my way, you paint yours,” they say.


But this scenario raises several questions. 



Should there be a standard set in place for organized plein air events?  Should participants agree to complete each painting entirely on location?  Or should a percentage be established (80% plein air, 20% finished in motel or studio)? 



Or is reworking an average painting to make it more saleable a higher priority?  Does the clientele recognize the difference between a piece that is finished on location and one that has been retouched?  Does “finishing” the painting really make it better?   



Does finishing work in the motel take the painting from a plein air piece to a studio piece, by definition (even if 90% was finished en plein air)?  Or is it still defined as a plein air work?    Can an event be billed as “plein air” if the paintings are finished in the motel? 



If participants were required to complete the work entirely on location, would the quality of the show go up or down?  Would it weed out some artists?  Would it attract other artists?  Or does it really matter?  In the end is it just about the finished results?


There are many more questions, but you get the point.  Again, I am only referring to organized plein air events.  When painting on your own, the only rule is to do what works best for you to achieve your vision.  Be it completing the work on location; finishing it in the studio; or using the study to inspire a new, larger studio work.


But again, the questions.  Should there be a standard at an organized event?  What should that standard be?  Where do you stand on the issue?  Or does it not even matter?


I know artists on both sides.  I understand the argument on both sides.  I won’t say which side I am on, but you are free to guess…


Best Wishes,

Keith Bond

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Related Posts:

Why Painting From Life Matters

Abstract vs. Representational

Abstract vs. Representational Part 2

Topics: art appreciation | art collectors | creativity | FineArtViews | Keith Bond | originality | painting 

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Marian Fortunati
Hi Keith..
This has been a topic of discussion forever, it seems and really there is no way to answer it. Even if an even set a standard of "completing the painting outside" or "no more than 10 percent completed after returning from the field" how in the world would you enforce it??

Heck I've even seen artists who paint a whole sunny day scene while they are standing outside in the fog. They paint from memory of having painted in that place on a sunny day over and over.

What's right?? Does the buyer care?? Probably the buyer who prefers sunny scenes doesn't.

In every endeavor there are purists and those who are less than "pure". It's just the way it is.

Even studio painters say that it is important to paint outdoors.... why??

I say painting outdoors is an experience that should never be missed... just for the joy of it.

Trent Gudmundsen
Keith, I've heard heated debate from both sides, and totally understand the passion for each viewpoint.

I'm more of a "doesn't matter" type. Although, I will say that when I complete a painting 100 percent plein air and it works out, that painting ends up being a true treasure to me; but if I "dilute" it by reworking it later I'm usually not as attached to it, as if it's lost its' purity. On the other hand, I've fine-tuned some mediocre plein air studies into real winners later.

Also, I've painted on-location indoors at plein air events before, and that has stirred a lot of debate among a few purists as well. To that I've simply said, if the show accepts it, then so be it.

I think it could be difficult for shows to regulate against hotel painting (there may always be some bending of the rules), so I suppose my vote would be that they take the "doesn't matter" position as well...ultimately, I think the shows are worth more if they're showing off good quality art (regardless of how it was made).

Teddy Jackson
The experience of painting outdoors is priceless. I truly enjoy having people watch me paint. I believe that is where the sale occurs in many cases. Quick paints are popular with the viewers and especially appealing to me. Obviously, those are on location only and draw a great crowd.
I honor the wishes of the event organizers regarding finishing the work on location.

Rhoda J Powers
Brian, good discussion points, I can see how this idea could be brought forward to include artists who hire, or work with apprentices, or other studio help in their processes and production. As a individual glass and mixed media artist, I often wonder about exactly when does another human have significant influence in the work we produce? We are constantly influenced by other artists, what we see, process, what we hear, feel, often stimuli/work created by others. At what point does it become a collaboration? There are many hot glass studios with some big name artists who have people who influence the end result, whether it's an idea, color suggestion, a simple turn of the punty with molten glass attached, a larger lung capacity...... yet the piece is signed by a single artist. For the "purest" the answers seem clear, but like it or not there is a lot of gray in this world. I suppose we need to manage our own palette so to speak and not concern ourselves with others.

Beth Betker
Hi Keith. An avid plein-air painter, I benefit from painting outdoors but rarely feel my plein-air sketches are finished paintings. I try to take outdoor experience with me to the studio. I would not, however, represent studio work as plein-air work, but simply as inspired by plein-air sketching. The sketches themselves remain gems with a special vitality.
I sort of feel conflict between artists is unnecessary distraction. But regarding fair practice, I respect the definition of plein air as truly plein air, and I also respect artists using all their skill to share their joy in natural beauty, however they do it. I agree with Teddy above, that the definitions provided by event organizers are best honored!

Sharon Weaver
I paint plein air a lot so I understand the difficulties involved with the process. Bad weather, time restraints and an infinite list of excuses and problems. I think final touch ups to a plein air work are acceptable. I take exception to the issues Marian raises. I have seen artist outside painting a sunny scene in the fog, where you can't see across the road, they have a beautiful seascape with cliffs and waves breaking on the rocks. Since capturing the moment is what plein air is all about, I find this to be more of an issue than the artist who makes a few adjustments in the hotel to a plein air piece. I have also seen a duplication of the same exact painting, only different sizes. In other words, some artists paint at these events using a formula not really painting the place at that time. Many artists who do this sell successfully, even win awards but for me the joy of plein air is improvising, experimenting and pushing myself into unknown territory. I have my motives and other artists have theirs.

Painting en plein air with the intent to finish on-the-spot, alla prima, results in paintings that can look fresh and loose. With the clock ticking at a plein air event, "mistakes" are overlooked, some subtlety may be lost, yet it's a way to show your chops in the same way a jazz musician improvises. Artists who prefer to paint-and-move-on may like this approach best. If the result is field studies for future use, so much the better.

But if you want the chance to give the end owner the very best of your insight, not just your recording of a scene, then it seems that some purposeful followup to "polish" the painting so that it glows with the best of your spirit, know-how and vision makes sense to me. It allows for you to integrate your own artistic sense while honoring the hopes of the future owner of the work.

Perry Austin
This is just too much. Don't you know it is all just painting. A good artist will finish a painting and a mediocre one will not. All we need is another entity telling us what to do. Maybe we should make all the good artist help out the mediocre ones so it will all come out equal - sound familiar? Some paintings are completed outside and it is considered a study (I would love to have Schmid's or Aspevig's studies.)Some paintings are finished in a motel room and are still lousy! It is up to the buyer to purchase what they want and up to the artist to create the best product possible. Concentrate your efforts on becoming better,not splitting hairs.

Zan Barrage
If you stop looking at these events as ART events and start seeing them for what they are: Sporting events (Plein Air as a sport) it becomes obvious that if you don't follow the rules you are cheating.

Artists through the ages have been working on the same paintings indoors and out. Monet - our guide into plein air painting - always worked on paintings in the studio. He said he didn't. He was lying and that sort of says it all I guess.

If you are in it for the sport, follow the rules of the sport. If you are interested in creating a work of art that stands on its own and speaks to a buyer who couldn't care less how you did it, then chose what events you wish to participate in and why!

This argument comes up all the time and I won't disagree that studio pieces generally have a more finished or refined look. But if someone enters a PLEIN AIR COMPETITION, they should abide the accepted definition of plein air work (painted outdoors, FROM LIFE) and if they can't do that, then they should not be there and should open a space for another plein air artist who may not have been juried in. It's as much about the HONESTY to the judges and patrons as it is about the "quality" of the piece. And very few are actually fooled! Plein Air work is not for woosies and, no, painting from a video taped time loop is NOT the same.
My 2 cents!

Nancy Riedell
Thank you so much for bringing up this topic This has been a sticky wicket in my side for years. I used to belong to a Plein Air group and we would go happily to various locations in Santa Cruz and paint. Most were absolute abominations. We agreed to bring the piece to the next meet (a month later) and discuss its pros and cons. Well, the coordinator would work her piece 11 (ELEVEN!) times and bring it to the next meeting. I was offended.

Plein Air means just that. You work it "en plein aire" and what you have worked is what the viewer should see. In fact, I think it's cheating to take it home and re-work it. It's not fair to the other artists who are true to the French term. Plus, it's misleading to any viewer who might be interested in buying that piece as they would be under the assumption that it was painted in the great outdoors.

There oughtta be a law!!!


Kathryn Clark
As the others have said, this is a topic of much discussion, and I agree with many. Let me add a couple of points.

First let me say that the light in a motel room is always horrible so I would never recommend it. However, many painters, especially if they're painting a large plein air of 11" x 14" or 16" x 20" or so, will paint in the same location over two days. Many plein air events are two or three days long. Also, when the sun light changes too much, it may be necessary to come back to that spot the next day. Second point: All during the painting process, the artist is continually making choices about what to include, what color, what value, what to leave out, how much detail, etc. He's not copying the landscape accurately. In the end, he'll probably want to add whatever the painting needs, and many painters intentionally turn the painting away from the landscape so they can see it fresh, without that influence. But any painter with half a brain will paint in natural sunlight.

Irene Salley
Enough rule and regulation in our life.
If painting outside brings you what you are looking for, why do you need a standard. Is it a competition?
I thought we were painting outside for the fun, the light, the accuracy, the spirit of nature, the camaraderie. What difference does it make if this one finishes his work inside? I do not get the debate.

Nancy Hilgert
For the purposes of competition, I feel strongly that if work is to be submitted and judged as en plein air, it should be painted in it's entirety outside, no exceptions. If an exhbition wants to allow all degrees of outside vs. inside, then they can do that, just as they can decide to have only painting or all media in a given exhibition. There's no debate on whether it's art, or it's good or not based on partial completion indoors; the finished product speaks for itself regardless of medium, style or place of execution. Curators can just simply say what they accept for a competition, make it clear and accept what they ask for. On a personal level, if I were painting en plein air, I would do all the work outdoors from start to finish. I think all this "by degrees" debate arises from the popularity fo the style engendering a greater notion of production.

Zan Barrage
Irene, you said: "Is it a competition?"
The problem is that the answer to your question is YES.
Someone thought up the idea of a competition for plein air and the result is that we are faced with "rules" for the competition that get translated to rules for plein air painting outright.
I for one am dropping the whole overused and abused term completely out of my vocabulary. I have asked most of the people who bought my works in the past two years and guess what? They don't give a damn.

Some might think that a purity of the sport and the harder you have to endure in finding a spot - hiking, climbing, etc... makes for a better work. I say to each his own. In the end, when it is hanging on a gallery wall the potential buyer wants to know if it says something to them and if the colours work with the furniture! The rest is our making.

Esther J. Williams
Keith, I am both a plein air artist and an impressionist artist. My last piece painted en plein air was after what you said. "With each is an authentic expression of the moment and place." In truth I was after that 'capturing the moment' and not to alter the artwork in anyway afterwards. Even though I knew there were passages that didn`t work out quite right, I wanted to keep the freshness of the experience written in oil on that substrate. The piece was an encapsulation of an artist`s skill, on the spot in nature dealing with all the elements and a time crunch to capture that effect of light on a subject. It was my honesty, I can call it 100 percent plein air and feel it as truth.
On other times, long after a competition is over, I have to bring a piece home to finish it, maybe add some figures to a cafe table like my painting that is on the easel right now. I will not label this as a plein air piece, I will call it an impressionism work.
In a plein air event, I work to paint it completely on site if possible, in the past I have done 20 percent at home since my events were close to home. I can`t imagine doing it in a motel room. But now, I feel experienced enough in the process or sport as they say of plein air to know I can complete it 100 percent onsite if I was in a competition. That way, when I am facing the buyers, I can proudly say it is a plein air piece, done completely on location. It is what is important to me as a spiritual thing. So, I know there are many others who disagree, but they can use whatever reason they want to excuse themselves. I know, I made up plenty in the past when in a competition. I had a professor in an art design course who yelled at me every time I had some excuse for a project not being ready, she said, "There`s no excuses." I think that has a lot of power in it.
Many times I have sold a work of art right off the easel while it is still wet. I always have that feeling that I could`ve done something more on it. But you just have to stop sometime whether it is done or not. Some people love that unfinished, loose look. It gets the point across, no need to mess it up anymore.
I do like to paint more refined studio works and take an on location workstudy to paint a larger piece from now. It has become habit forming for me to paint onsite very loosely, knowing that I am going to use that piece to glean from. Enough said for now.

Zan Barrage
Nancy, Cheating? Really?
I mean you wouldn't tell a portrait artist working from a sitter and photos when the sitter is not there that he/she was cheating would you? Would you tell a still life artist that he/she was cheating if they pick up the vase to check it more closely?
Heck you wouldn't even tell a studio artist he was cheating if he/she took the painting outdoors to work on it in natural light would you?

Rules on plein air painting are a necessity brought about by competitions and newcomers who are more into nature and the outdoors than painting.

If you had agreed in your group that no one was to touch their works so that you could critique the effort out of doors, that is another issue, but plein air has no rules. I told you, even Monet brought his work indoors and worked on it there!

Nancy Hilgert
Zan, re-read what I wrote, and you will understand that I was speaking to the question of what en plein air meant to me, IF a competition asked for 100 percent plein air, that is what would be displayed. If they ask for any form of plein air, that is what should be entered. If they ask for clay, no drawing gets in. That simple. I never used the word cheating, it's all art. As I wrote, I was speaking to the question posed of a plein air competition, what should the standard be, and plainly stated that it should be shat the exhibit asked for. Simply that. As an experienced and degreed artist, collector and competitor, I'm quite familiar with various methods, Monets and many others, all wonderful, all valid, all art.

Zan Barrage
Sorry Nancy Higert, the comment was for Nancy Riedell (the discussion is going too fast :) )

Question for everyone who loves the rules: If the competition say is Sedona, and you are a painter who has done one of the mesa's a hundred times before, is it still a sport to compete by doing it again? Is it fair for someone who is coming from the east coast to compete against you?

How far do we want to take this?

Kathy Chin
interesting article Keith..

I agree with Nancy...if a competition says it should be finished outdoors within a certain period, then those are the competition rules. But if it's a group and you meet the next week, it would seem that it's no-holds-barred unless you agree on what should/shouldn't be done during the week (like how many times you can return to the same spot, or what was added in the car on the ride,notice I didn't say drive, home)

But in the long run...does it really matter? Isn't it still your art?Unless it was a competition where you know it was plein air and you may have gotten a prize, does a client really care whether it was started and finished while painting outside? Don't they just like the painting for what it is? Couldn't you still talk about the weather/crowds/time of day for the 90 percent you actually painted outside? Unless someone else painted part of it, is it really cheating if you paint 10 percent under an overhang or in a shed and will the client refuse to buy it because of "that cheating 10 percent?"

Sonya Conti
Having just recently joined OPAS found this topic very interesting. While "showing" the unfinished work after the day of painting; an observer approached inquiring if I felt the painting was finished. No, the work was not finished after the 6 hours; too large a canvas and only surface capture of atmosphere. He went on to inquire what the "price" of the unfinished work would be vs the price of the piece finished. Having next to no experience answered the same price. He chuckled and walked away. (Felt this would be only fair and that this gave the client the option to suggest changes). To this day am still confused and wonder if didn't shoot myself in foot for credibility.

Sonya Conti
Sorry, hit the enter key without completing the thought. Hesitate do I to submit a piece that is not up to a standard that feel should have for potential work. The smaller pieces, yes are studies I feel. I will return to the same site as soon as can to complete a piece that want to learn from more and in my mind feel that this holds true to the "plein air" painting outlines.

Kathryn Clark
I agree completely. There's another thing to consider when the desire to change or add after you leave the "full sun" where you painted. When one is painting in full sun, the pupils of your eyes shut down, and you don't necessarily see all the color in the painting, haven't added enough contrast, included enough darks. It's important to look at the painting in even, natural light to make those important adjustments. Also, if you really want to add something or make a change after you leave the site, for goodness sake "Go ahead!", I'm sure your collector wants to have the painting you think is finished!

Nancy Hilgert
Sonja, most painters charge by the square inch, so yes, it would be the same price.

Nancy Hilgert
Write another comment . . .

Thanks, Keith, for shedding some light on a thorny debate. I had just returned from a plein air event in Iowa when I read your post. The organizer was very clear in stipulating that all work submitted for display (and cash prizes, and for sale to the public) had to be completed on site. I lost one day to travel, and one day to torrential downpours. I wasn't able to finish a piece before the deadline. When I viewed some of the other artists' truly gorgeous and polished works, it didn't even dawn on me that there were some midnight motel machinations going on. Thank you again for the valuable insight.

Barb Stachow
I've never experienced the great outdoors in my painting...often pondered it...but never get out there doing the actual thing...I wonder if that could be the wave of the future? So many are pursueing that road.

My only goal as an artist -- is to create the most beautiful living, breathing, work of art I can.

Wether it had to be completed off sight or on, is trivial. An artist whose "priciples" are to finish on sight within a time contsraint, are making up game rules and imposing them upon themselves.

But to come back everyday to paint at the same time/same place, is another story. Claude Monet. --Though, no two days/skys are ever alike.

If an artist is in a plein air competition with let's say, 3 hours to complete and on sight, then the rules have the artist jumping through hoops--a clear diversion from a sincere attempt to create a masterpiece. Then again, artists are generally very competitive, and many would gladly take the challenge to create the best painting under painstaking constraints.

Esther J. Williams
Maureen, that is it in a nutshell. Let`s say there is a quick draw, all the artist begin at the blow of a horn and have to quit 3 hours later, then turn the plein air piece in to be juried and sold at a silent or speaker auction. That`s pure plein air. It is painstaking, I have watched the artists at work doing this for the plein air competitions for years. The buyers are walking along seeing which piece they want to purchase as they are being produced. It is exciting to see each artist pour everything they know into creating a work of art onsite. Many of those works are jewels. There is a palpable energy in the air and the art. I volunteer to be a sales ambassador for the Laguna Plein Air Invitational every year just to be a part of the event and learn what it takes. Someday I hope to be invited as a participant, I will be ready.

Phil Kendall
On Being an Artist An unintended, perhaps, consequence in the resurgence of artists' painting out in the open air for all the world to witness 'the artist' practising 'their art' is the continuance of those arcane esoteric bits of jargon like: 'en plein air painting'. A phrase that simply says and means: 'painting out in the open air'.

An analysis of those painting out in the open is needed and along the way a few boring definitions.

Besides being out in the fresh air and getting some sun, building up the vitamin D levels, using copious quantities of sunscreen or getting sun-burn or, needing to wear some daft hat, with the sunglasses on and off almost at the speed of light and not to mention the exercise involved in carrying all that equipment from the car just to get away from too many people etc. Just what is the point in 'painting out in the open air' other than feeding human blood to the midges?

Its proponents claim its about learning to see. The more you paint outdoors, the more you will begin to see. You start noticing subtle colour shifts in the sunny patches and in those growing shadows, those complex patterns of light and dark in a forest and, if you're really observant, Brownian motion in between the very air molecules...and so it goes on. Hyperbole or just pretentiousness?

No artist can ever fit all of what they observed, or otherwise perceived, onto a canvas no matter how long they stand out there painting in the open. If they did, their painting would be an absolute facsimile, just like any photograph. The artist has to exercise a considerable degree of creative control by selectively omitting those elements that do not contribute to a genuine work of art. That finished artwork must provide the viewer with the most satisfying experience possible. That emotion that they just wish they could have been there to paint it for themselves, so much so that they just have to but it.

In a nutshell, painting out in the open is all about learning to see, then learning not to paint all of what you see. Learning what to leave out is the key skill for any artist whether its the studio or the outdoor artist. If an element in the scene does not contribute to the painting, then omit it is a good maxim. True artists always evaluate their scenes to eliminate those non-essential elements. By omitting them the from the scene it becomes a simplification of what is seen. Any intricate patterns in the scene, if included, are in the form of just a suggestion.

Painting out in the open for all the world to see is in effect a virtuoso performance especially for the benefit of any passing spectators. All that panache, all that showmanship, this is the real art by a real artists, me. That same artist could just as well paint in the privacy of their art studio. For the virtuoso showman artist, painting out in the open, its perhaps a personally pleasing performance and all it needs is some sort of watching audience to make it all just so worthwhile. Perhaps they subconsciously wish they had taken up acting and not art?

George De Chiara
Wow, this one touched a nerve. The comments have been very interesting to read. In the few plein air events I've entered the rule clearly state that all work must be completed on location with no additional work done in the studio or hotel. I've been tempted sometime to continue to work on pieces, but I want to stick to the rules when I'm in these events. When I'm painting on my own, then anything goes. If I get a piece home and feel it needs some tweaking than I don't hesitate to do it.

Becky Joy
It really doesn't matter which side "wins". There are sound reasons on both sides and it is impossible to regulate. I've been to an event that limited the stamped canvases. Their thought was that by doing so they would limit those that did the work in the motel. Those that want to finish or paint at a motel or pull out one of their other pieces will do so. I explained to them that they were limiting themselves and other artists by not allowing more canvases. Sometimes it takes a while painting in a location for an artist to hit their stride and we all have paintings that are lousy.
I think this debate is something that should be left with the individual and what is important to them in the process of painting. Usually in the final results, you can tell those paintings that were truly painted outdoors or not.

Kevin Haller
The quality of the art is what matters, and on that account it is of no significance if a piece was completed 100 percent outside, or 1 percent outside. What matters is if the work embodies the outside (e.g.; Does the viewer feel the float of the clouds when looking at the piece?). While plein air events are mostly wonderful, in general they send an errant message to the public. The message should be that the artists are working from nature ( percent is not important), and the produced artworks sing the local landscape. Instead, the events tend to more emphasize that the works are completed on location, before the light changes, and therefore you can expect bargains because you will only have to pay the artist for about 3 hours of effort per piece.

Beth Winfield
Hi Keith,
I love doing Plein Air events. It has never bothered me that some finish the painting indoors. Some painters are able to finish en pein air and are able to give the paintings that fresh,vibrant look full of varying brushstrokes and light right on the spot. Some painters begin to capture it outdoors and need to step away from the painting to see it in another light before they can capture the light or essential brushstroke. Sometimes the first type of painter doesn't have a good day and is able to save that painting later. In the end, I think it is all about the painting and not where or how the painter finishes the painting. It's all about making the painting that works. There is always the quick draw contest which sets apart the men from the boys or the woman from the girls, it has the rule in most instances that you must start and finish the painting at a certain location in a couple of hours. I do feel that is the ultimate challenge and that is a separate category all by itself. To truly finish a painting in a few hours is not easily done but oh so much fun to try! And, setting these paintings aside, hung separately from the rest of the show, usually draws lots of attention to the real plein air enthusiasts.

Jo Allebach
The "sport" with strict rules and regulations is different than producing a fine work of art. Out here in the open air the painting may turn out wonderful but then we give ourselves freedom to do it anyway when we are working on our own in order to make the best painting we can. I say, "Does it matter?"

Joanne Benson
Great debate! I love to plein air and have participated in group paint outs but never a "competition" where you were timed and judged at the end with prizes involved. I think that if you are in the "contest" then you should obey the rules whatever they are. Otherwise, I think that having a good painting is more important and that studio touch ups are fine. The plein air group that I am a member of has a "rule of thumb" stating that no more than 15 percent should be done in the studio. Most good painters can manage corrections within that percentage although there is no way to police how much studio time was spent and in the end no one really cares if the painting is a good one. The buyers generally don't care how the painting was made if they love it. Although, it is always fun to have an interesting plein air story attached to a painting.

Joanne Benson
Great debate! I love to plein air and have participated in group paint outs but never a "competition" where you were timed and judged at the end with prizes involved. I think that if you are in the "contest" then you should obey the rules whatever they are. Otherwise, I think that having a good painting is more important and that studio touch ups are fine. The plein air group that I am a member of has a "rule of thumb" stating that no more than 15 percent should be done in the studio. Most good painters can manage corrections within that percentage although there is no way to police how much studio time was spent and in the end no one really cares if the painting is a good one. The buyers generally don't care how the painting was made if they love it. Although, it is always fun to have an interesting plein air story attached to a painting.

Zan Barrage
On September 16-18 OPAS (Ontario Plein Air Society) is having the annual show and sale. Only plein air works are accepted, but the definitions are broad and simple and on the honor system. You can paint it any way you wish but it has to be at least started en plein air.

On the 17th - during the Thornhill fall festival - we are having a plein air challenge (Canadian version of quick draw - We don't like guns up here). Its a 3hr even, the panels are stamped and painting is limited to a defined area.

The first event is an art event.

The second is a fun sporting/art event meant to engage the festival goers and highlight plein air painting. Festival goers will be choosing 1st 2nd and 3rd place winners. Artists are competing, but let's be clear this is not the way most artists make art. It IS a sport, a fun thing to do and some take it very seriously for the win, but art? ...

Keith Bond
Thanks everyone for your comments. I appreciate reading everyone's perspectives. Many of you raise many valid arguments. There is a lot to think about with this debate.

I would like to add a few comments.

First, let me say that there are very few plein air events that I participate in. I am very selective with the events for multiple reasons.

One reason is that it can become somewhat of a sport rather than art (though not always). At an event I might choose to paint something safe, but when not participating in an event I would push things more.

For me plein air is a means of study and understanding. It is about exploration. It is how I understand light, value, color, atmosphere relationships. I experience the sights and sounds which excite my senses and feed my creativity. It is about responding to the moment.

I don't mind onlookers, but I don't seek them out either. I don't paint plein air to perform, I paint on location because that is where I find my muse.

But I seldom finish work en plein air. I take the studies back to the studio to create my interpretation of what I experienced out in the field. But I would never call my studio work plein air. I say that it is a studio piece derived from plein air field studies.

I never finish a plein air piece back in the studio because I value the notes that I took in the moment. Even if a piece didn't work out, there are passages that are invaluable for future studio works. If I rework the study, I will have lost my research, my notes, my insights.

My way isn't right, it isn't wrong. It's my way. It's right for me - for now.

In my opinion, most plein air events do a disservice to plein air painting. There are a few stellar events, but they are few and far between.

I think we should educate collectors on the value of working from life and its limitations. How and why it is used. That is of course different for each artist, but there are several common threads.

I don't think that plein air is an end in itself. Though I respect those artists who feel that way. Again, it is personal for each artist.

Just a few of my thoughts.

Keith Bond
Another quick thought.

I don't feel that an artist should discount plein air works. Just because they are painted quickly does not mean that they are worth less. Keep your prices consistant.

If it's not a finished work, then don't sell it.

Maybe I'll write a full article about it.


Jake Gaedtke
You stir controversy with your article, which is good. Being a Founding member and board of the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, we have had to deal with this issue directly. After ten years of putting on our plein air events, we finally decided we had to trust our participants that they were going to do what they are going to do. We even quit stamping our participants panels before an event because we trust them. We never intend our events to be a competition, heaven forbid. It's a time when our members, who are all seasoned and experienced plein air painters, can come together to paint and show our work. The fact that we are all showing together puts pressure on everyone to do their best. I know of some so called plein air painters who have taken photos of their scene and go into their hotel rooms to do the painting. Shame on them. I personally try to do as much as possible on loaction. There are times however where factors like the weather, the light, friends who I am with painting want to move on, and I don't get to finish a painting. Those paintings I do "finish up" later. I don't paint in my hotel room, but I set up outside or go back to the location I started, and I only allow myself a small period of time to do so. Otherwise I will ruin the spontinaity. I find I can noodle a painting to death and ruin the entire escence of a painting. We can't have plein air police out checking every participants painting processes and habits. We have to trust our people to have integrity and are painting for themselves however they do it. Those are the kinds of people we look for to participate in our organization....of which you are a highly respected member of.

Kevin Haller
To solve these plein air event "cheating" problems, properly educate the collectors, and improve the artwork produced, plein air events should call attention to (and hang ribbons) on the paintings that best exemplify the benefits of using the plein air approach. In my experience, I see that awards migrate to the paintings that the event organizers (non-artists often) believe are most likely going to sell for the highest price at the culminating sale. This awarding approach celebrates the following characteristics over all other qualities:
1. Large-sized, match-the-sofa-color paintings
2. Paintings with the most detail (250 branches painted is 10X better than 25 branches painted)

Unfortunately, as the awards/money go, so goes the painting technique. Hence, the "midnight motel machinations" (I'm leveraging a previous poster's very creative and appropriate name here) go on and on.

Instead, I propose that the plein air events purposefully steer the awarding process to the paintings that best sing the local landscape and atmosphere. By awarding in this way, the motel work would be inherently punished. As we all know, work inspired outside and completed outside will always be more authentic and compelling than midnight motel machinations.

I contend that this awarding technique would improve the artwork generated, educate the public on the true merits and benefits of plein air work, and save countless thinner spills on the motel carpet.

There is obvious wide agreement on the joys and benefits of plein air painting. Disagreement shows up regarding rules at plein air events and/or imposing restrictions on artists doing what they do however they see fit. Maybe it's the nature of competitive events, whether art or sports or politics, that brings out the best in some and the worst in others. If one chooses to play a game, it would seem reasonable that one would follow the rules. Each of us has a moral compass and knows how to follow it.

Gene Rizzo
WOW !!! I am just starting into plein air painting and came across this blog; WOW !!! Being excited about my new journey, it never dawned on me there would be this kind of dispute around "Plein Air Painting".
Since I am "very new" to plein air painting, I automatically thought that it is exactly what it says it is,plein air painting, which means painted in the open !!!!! PERIOD
If you are Plein Air Painting - not in a sanctioned competition - do what you want to do, but be honest with your client and let him/her know if you touched up the piece after you painted it on site - outdoors.
If you're in a competition, at least honor the intent of Plein Air painting and finish your piece "OUTDOORS" and then - leave it alone !!!!!

Jim m Moyer
Cool stuff.....

doug stotts
The answer to the question is in "rule" of the specific event, but the reality of these situations will fall into the 'life isn't fair, but oh well" category. I've never been much of a rule follower, I skipped school every chance I got when I was a kid. But when I see a plein air event that specifies that the paintings are on location only, and you see the subterfuge artists resort to (I've heard them painting inside a locked bathroom stall at the event itself!) , then you have to know people feel about those rules the way I felt about school rules. "To hell with it." They want to finish their painting. Period. I never felt that the events I painted in were important enough to warrant subterfuge---but other people might be smarter than I am. Unless you gather up paintings like a gendarme at the end of the paint-out, you have no chance of forcing people to go with the program. Get this---at one of the events, it was timed and everyone was in great shock at their own work, because it had started to rain and we were all horrified at what we'd done (practically all of us I think) , and when the time was up and we made a bedraggled line to turn in our rushed paintings---a handful of people couldn't be found for an HOUR. They finally innocently appeared and of course their paintings were still accepted. Actually, I admired their ingenuity because that would never have occurred to me, but it still seemed ridiculous. However, a timed painting event, which is what the plein air things are actually, breeds it.

doug stotts
'the rules' ---sorry, I need to remember to proofread

Beth Winfield
I have another thought on this. I do most of mine Plein Air but I do spend sometime when finishing a painting not even looking at the scene. So, if a person takes the painting into a hotel room to finish a painting what's wrong with that? Sometimes it's better to just look at the painting and not the subject. After all, your not copying a scene, your making a painting. I was recently in a quick draw where we were supposed to paint for two hours and some people walked in several hours later and were still included. I do have trouble with that because I thought the time was up and would have loved to spend a little more time on my painting. If there is another quick draw and that happens again, I think I might be hesitant to join in.

Beth Winfield
Also, you paint outdoors and. must capture the light during a small window of time. It is this magical light that makes the Plein air piece and is best captured within the first hour of painting. This is what's best about Plein air painting and once you have the light down, you don't spend time chasing it. You can still tidy up your painting not even looking at your scene.

Kevin Haller
In reality, no one is a true "plein air" painter--unless they can finish a painting in 5 minutes. The light and atmosphere are constantly changing. So while a painter may stand outside for 6 hours, his scene left 5 hours and 55 minutes ago, so what good does it do him? My feeling is that artists that stand outside for 6 hours (I am one of them on many occasions), are at a disadavantage because the continually changing landscape skews their memory--sort of like trying to remember numbers when someone is yelling random numbers.

Paintings should be judged by their success at recreating the impression and feel of nature, period.

Theresa Laird
This debate has been going on forever. I wrote about it in my blog post "What is a Plein Air Painting".Personally I'm not willing to accept anyone's rules about how I paint. If someone wants to engage in a contest about how fast they can paint, fine. Then follow the rules. But these contests aren't all that different than the ones for how many hot dogs you can eat in a minute. Eating contests have nothing to do with the enjoyment of food and plein air contests have little to do with creating an enduring work. My advice is to just paint and leave the artificiality of contests to the organizers of them.

Zan Barrage
Mwah. I kiss you for that comment Theresa! I love it!!

Kathryn Clark
I paint plein air quite a bit and would like to bring up another point in this discussion. When a painter is looking at the landscape in full sun, the irises of the eye naturally shut down to protect it. This can make the painter think the colors and light are brighter than the painting is in fact. When the painter leaves the bright sunlight, she may want to make some changes to make the painting closer to the light she saw. Also, painting under a black umbrella can also change the color and light on the painting. There are valid reasons to tweek a painting soon after finishing it in the field.

June Long-Schuman
As an artist who paints "plein air" and in the studio - it's all about capturing the light. There's only about a 3 or 4hr. period working outdoors(on a sunny day) until the light changes. I've painted both ways; completing the work entirely outdoors(sometimes returning on the second day) and sometimes finishing the work in the studio(unless it's a competition that specifics pure '"plein air") The end result is what matters and not how you get there - it' the song and dance and the message that's important and we shouldn't get too wrapped up in putting controls on how artist's paint. Let us paint!


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