Why the History of Plein Air Painting Matters
By Jean Stern
The Irvine Museum
Artists at Laguna Beach Art Association Exhibition, c. 1918
The Irvine Museum, Courtesy of Barbara and Molly Bing
As an art historian, looking back at photos of plein air history excites me. Though we see a past when women wore bonnets and men painted in three-piece suits, these people were simply living their lives as painters. Yet when I study this photo, I see the faces of painters whose names are legendary, whose paintings are highly collectable, and whom collectors and museums clamor to own. Yet I suspect these people never considered themselves names that would go down in history. Like most of you, they just loved to paint and wanted to express themselves by creating their best work.
Barn in the Fog, c. 1925
Sam Hyde Harris
Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.
Today, you and I are meeting painters who will be considered the greats of our generation. In fact, one of them might be you. I’m sure that people like Alson S. Clark or Sam Hyde Harris never thought that anyone would look back to them as among the great painters of their time. Just as one day art historians will look back on the photos of our gatherings today and marvel at the way things used to be. Instead of a gathering watching Alfred Mitchell do a demo, it will be photos marveling over people like those on the faculty at this year’s Plein Air Convention.
Alson S. Clark painting near Lone Pine, CA, c. 1922
Courtesy of the Estate of Alson S. Clark
One of the best things that an artist can do to advance their art is to be in the company of other artists. The opportunity to meet other artists, to talk to them, and to watch them work is of the highest benefit to anyone working to improve their art. This is been the case ever since artists began to congregate and form art associations. There is real value to working around other artists, to watch them work and to see how they solve problems that are routinely encountered in painting. There is an immeasurable benefit to painters being influenced by other painters, watching their demonstrations, and being along side others to see how they interpret the same scene.
Alfred Mitchell Teaching Plein Air Class, c. 1928
The Irvine Museum
The Plein Air Convention offers just that, and over the past two years, hundreds of artists have taken advantage of the opportunity. The photos you see online today are the historical photos of the future, and painters will look back on them, wishing they could have lived in those times, and met and talked with the people they consider the greats. Anybody who is anybody in plein air is on the faculty or attending this important historical event, and as a historian I believe it has great significance to the plein air movement.
I’m pleased that this year, in response to numerous requests, the convention is offering specific tracks for watercolor and pastel painters. This makes the convention meaningful to a larger number of artists, not just to oil painters.
I am not an artist; I am an art historian and a museum director who specializes in historical plein air paintings. But I take advantage of any opportunity to learn about the wonderful craft of plein air painting. Understanding what an artist does to create a masterwork of landscape adds immensely to my ability to recognize a great painting from the past. Representational art has been around for centuries, and artists of the past faced the same challenges that artists face today: developing drawing skills, constructing proper perspective structure, learning effective compositional methods, understanding line and color, and the many other tools and approaches artists have had to master. I cannot go back and ask the masters of the past to see how they handled these things, but I can talk to a great artist of today, and watch how he or she solves difficult problems right in front of my eyes. I value any contact I can have with great artists, and the Plein Air Convention offers me the chance to meet with them on a grand scale.
Ruth Peabody (right) and a watercolor painter working en plein air, c. 1935
Courtesy of Kevin Courter
I have always believed that landscape painting is the noblest form of pictorial representation, and that plein air painting is its truest expression. I certainly will be at the Plein Air Convention. This will be the third year that I’ve attended. I wouldn’t think of missing it.
Hundreds of artists line the Monterey coast at Asilomar Beach
during the 2013 Plein Air Convention.
If you are on the fence about attending, I can tell you that it’s better than I initially expected and is a phenomenal event. Where else can you see a beach with hundreds of painters working side by side, or more than 70 top-tier artists doing demonstrations in the field or onstage? It’s not only a learning experience, it’s a life experience, and you’ll be a part of history. I believe that each year the convention has broken the world’s record for the largest number of people painting together in one place at one time. It’s truly an amazing experience.
And though it might sound intimidating, I’ve been impressed with how everyone attending is embraced by the faculty members, no matter whether they are first-time plein air painters or experienced pros. Everyone is very giving at this event, and the spirit of the event is all about growing as painters and producing quality artwork.
History will remember this event, and the people who attended will tell their grandchildren about meeting and painting with people who became legends, and about being a part of the largest paint-out in history. I suspect history books will speak of it and publish photos from the Plein Air Convention so people can look back at what things were like in the “old days.” I’ll be there for sure, and I look forward to meeting you there.
The Irvine Museum
Note: We’d like to thank Jean Stern for sharing his perspective about the convention. If you wish to register, please visit PleinAirConvention.com
. We will be honoring Jean with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the convention to thank him for his enormous contributions to the world of plein air.
Join us in Monterey, California, April 7-11. The recent rains will mean the greens, flowers, and lupines should be in full force. We selected this location because of its incredible beauty. We hope you come to learn, paint, and play.