Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Plein Air Ho!

This week, as I did last week, I joined a posse of intrepid painters who tramped out to paint among the snowy hills and fields of Battis Farm on an outing in Amesbury, Mass.

From left: Donald Jurney, Jane Coder, and Tom Bailey on "the outing." Don't be fooled - it was balmy out there! They're only pretending to be cold.

Donald Jurney has been sounding the horn via Facebook, rousing from hibernation anyone who wants to come and move some paint around and have a few laughs. Painting can be a lonely road - it's nice to have camaraderie on the way. I caught up with some old friends, did a one-hour sketch, and headed back to the studio.

My plein air sketch of Battis Farm (that's the farm at the base of the hill on the far right)
Last week we painted at Maudslay State Park in Newbury, Mass. Donald brought something he had someone make for him that he was calling "The Hibbard Mitten." It's sort of like a wool sock without a heel, or else a mitten without a thumb... you stick the paintbrush right through the loosely knitted fabric.

The Hibbard Mitten(TM)
I saw immediately that it was "my color" and ended up winning it in a rock-paper-scissors contest with Tom Bailey. Works great! It's named for Aldro Hibbard, dauntless snow-painter of New England winters past.

Hibbard sporting "The Hibbard Mitten" (TM)

Today I didn't need the mitten - it was over 50 in the sun, and I painted without a jacket. What a treat, considering I've been painting outdoors every month of 2015, including the bitter weeks and months of one of the worst winters on record here. It wasn't by design - I just got very stir crazy in the studio.

I was looking for ways to converge abstraction and representation and spent almost every day for a week making 8"x8" studies of the surface of a frozen pond (Flint's Pond in Hollis, NH). It was surely below zero with the wind on at least one of those days. Shortly after, I became interested in painting larger abstract interpretations of mountains full of snow and ice, which I'm still doing in my studio.

Black Mountain 18" x 18" (detail)

Doing so sent me back outside though, so I found myself in the White Mountains painting plein air in the snow again. I'm heading up to spend this weekend painting the Whites in Jackson, NH too.

White Mountains, plein air, February 2015

Painting from life - and if you're a landscape painter, that means plein air - I think is essential for developing a vocabulary of space, color, light, and expression. But to what extent should that mean painting "what you see?"

Driving over, I was mulling over a conversation that began in my abstraction class, which I teach at the Arts League of Lowell, over the whys and wherefores of abstraction in representational painting. We came to no conclusions, of course, but it did occur to me that in plein air painting the degree of realism or abstraction hardly matters in the end, although either can derail the mission - as in all my work, my mission (all too easily lost sight of) is to express a strongly felt sensation of human reality.

And if the goal is to render something beautiful and moving, does the degree of detail really matter? Depends on what's being expressed, I guess. It's about an embodiment of the painter's "vision" though, right? What else really matters?

Coming this May

Join me for three days painting in the heart of the White Mountains May 3-6, 2015. I will be conducting this workshop in the capacity of the official Artist in Residence of the Appalachian Mountain Club's Highland Center in Crawford Notch. The workshop will kick off with an evening presentation on White Mountain painting past and present, providing context and inspiration. We will paint for the next three days, updating the tradition of White Mountain painting with a contemporary perspective. For more info or to sign yourself up, check out this page on the AMC's Highland Center site.


  1. You're right, the degree of verisimilitude doesn't matter, only the quality of the experience--first, for you, later, for the viewer. There has been much made of the degree to which a work represents a new way of seeing a subject, which impulse has led to an unending string of -isms and styles (the more shocking the better), but there is still much to be mined in any of the past styles. Is that at the heart of Post-post-modernism?

  2. Andrew, that's a really useful distinction you make between the experience for the artist and the experience for the viewer. Obviously you need both - one informs the other - and perhaps the purpose of craft shouldn't be craft for its own sake but craft in service of an authentic expression. In practical terms, this would mean not "learning how to paint" but getting in touch with one's inner life and allowing inner necessity to direct one's education.

    Feeling is first.

    Love the idea that post-post-modernism could about the freedom to borrow indiscriminately from the past *for the purpose of* re-animating personal experience with new forms of expression.

    It's the latter that takes work - just what everyone feels is lacking in the proliferation of conceptual mash-ups and regurgitation of recent stylistic trends such as post-Pop and Ab-Ex (the so-called "zombie formalism"). There has to be *content*! Painting is about fully expressive visual metaphors for a deeply felt experience of reality... damn it!

  3. I LOVE your White Mountains Plein Air. So ethereal but clear at the same time. Magical.

  4. Wonderful post as always. Will you teach the abstract class in Lowell again?

    1. Thanks, Jen - yes, I will teach the abstract class at Arts League of Lowell again but not until the fall/winter months.