Why Plein Air? A Manifesto on Painting from Life

September View of the Delaware River, a painting by Judith Reeve

People often ask me why do I work outside in the elements and not paint from photographs. And I think “this is the question” and it has to do with a serious difference in my attitude and vision of my own work. Here I am in all sorts of weather excessively hot, cold, bugs and ticks, wind and rain. Why not make my life more comfortable by working on my landscapes indoors in my own studio and avoid picking out those bugs and pine needles from the surface of the canvas or attempting to soften up my near frozen paint with a palette knife. Why?

And here is the answer. It all boils down to a very real and serious contrast of attitude and goals. Taking a photograph and then painting from it places emphasis on the ‘product’. The goal is strictly the success of the painting as an end in itself. As a painter from ‘life’ my goal does not solely rest on my final object, the painting, although I appreciate and am entirely grateful when an image is successful. My goal, that preempts this view, is to live a life full in experience and this very experience of being in the moment, adds to a life well lived. The painting is no longer the goal but becomes instead the by-product of an immensity of living.

When I paint from life, I am at a meeting point which I like to call a ‘confluence’. A confluence is when a smaller stream meets and joins a larger river or ocean. By analogy, I am that small stream with my feelings, ideas and sensitivity to the world, meeting the greater force of nature or a human person. Together there is a merging of experience, and from that merging or confluence, there arises the real image – the one you are supposed to create and is seeking form in the world. But this meeting cannot be felt instantaneously and captured like a photograph.

Judith Reeve painting the Delaware River

In order to be ‘impressed’, open to the living moment, one must dwell there, in that place, ready to be transformed. This is the part of ‘living’ that cannot be forsaken. One needs this chord sustained and held, prolonging the experience. This is the living that impresses the image onto the heart and mind of the artist. For me, the photo cannot capture my prolonged reverie in standing here in this place or with this unique person. This meditative engagement is the ‘art’. This indwelling is the raison d’être for the paintings existence. The end product is only the record. I say, only the record, because the experience is preeminent and the greater the attunement of the experience, the more powerful and moving the image will be.

This is why art is significant because one translates one’s life and its profoundest moments and offers them to another human being. And the viewer, by looking at this image, adds to the profundity of their own experience through the work. Their experience of life becomes more manifold and includes, possibly, an experience that they could not have had otherwise. It can raise their scope of ‘living’ by offering them full participation, not only visually but emotionally in the vision of the artist. They now live an expanded experience which may add to their own personal wholeness and hopefully to the wholeness of the community at large.

When just taking a photograph, one is not dwelling long in that place. It is brief and the experience feels less prophetic and all too ordinary. In such cases, I say, let the photograph be the art piece. Take the best photo you can and express what has moved you. Art photography is just as moving as painting. Don’t copy the photo just to make an ‘art piece’. By analogy I’ll point out a similar dynamic that predates photography. I am so moved by Corot’s Italian plein air paintings but so unmoved by his studio productions for the Salon. To me it’s as if Corot has removed himself from that initial inspiring moment where I can feel his heightened emotional state.

Live a life and tell me how you feel at this moment, now, in all its vastness. Capture the wind in your face; hold that bald eagle soaring down the river toward you; speak that spider’s web with dew in the crook of a sapling; visualize the reverie of childhood and the joyful feeling of being one with all the world. These things are not instantaneous. These things can only be relayed with emotion and intuition affecting every brush stroke and color applied to your canvas, moment by moment until they all merge into the completeness of the image.

As Robert Henri said: “What we need is more sense of the wonder of life, and less of the business of making a picture.”

There really is no other way. And this is how it has always been done from the cave paintings of Lascaux to this very day of September. The humanity of it all – the human spirit….mine and yours.

Judith Reeve painting on site along the Delaware River


Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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