Plein Air Art - Looking Back (Part 1) / by Jeannine Cook

It does not seem all that long ago, in the 1970s-80s in the United States, when working en plein air as an artist was considered somewhat unusual. Working from real life, especially out of doors, was considered almost unnecessary as artists either worked abstractly or they based a great deal of their work on photographs.  Slowly, slowly, plein air art has become mainstream again, indeed big business in many ways.

Since I have always worked from real life, my studio has been very mobile, very much in the outdoors, a fascinating but sometimes challenging way of working.

 Cabretta, Sapelo Island, silverpoint, artist Jeannine Cook

Cabretta, Sapelo Island, silverpoint, artist Jeannine Cook

Learning how to dress for all weathers, to ensure the art materials are portable, practical and resistant to all manner of odd situations, even to know where and when to go for subject matter all takes time. However, the other side of the coin is a sense of community with fellow artists, not only those working today, but those who were creating art long ago.

Landscapes and work based on close-up studies - whether of clouds (like Constable), bark, stones, seas or so many other aspects of nature - entered the Western art lexicon quite early.  Of course, first there were the astounding drawings of animals done on rock cave faces some 30,000+-years ago, but they were seldom placed in the context of a landscape. A giant leap forward in time brings one to 1,500 BC when frescos in Minoan Greece depicted landscapes. 

  The Spring fresco of Akrotiri, the only wall-painting found in situ in Santorini (a.k.a. Thera), covering three walls of the same room. NAMA,

 The Spring fresco of Akrotiri, the only wall-painting found in situ in Santorini (a.k.a. Thera), covering three walls of the same room. NAMA,

Around the same time, the Chinese (and soon the Japanese) were already creating landscapes in wonderful ink paintings. 

 Along the River QingMing, during Qingming Festival, 12th century, Zhang Zeduan (detail)

Along the River QingMing, during Qingming Festival, 12th century, Zhang Zeduan (detail)

The Romans too were bringing the outdoors into their homes with frescos such as those painted at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

 Landscape witha scenefrom the Odyssey, Rome, c. 60-40 BC

Landscape witha scenefrom the Odyssey, Rome, c. 60-40 BC

Landscapes, small and almost incidental in most cases, began to appear in the late medieval period in Western art in illuminated manuscripts and in paintings.  Giotto, Juan de Flandes, Jan van Eyck all began to evoke landscapes, and had to have observed the outdoors carefully to painting their scenes, even if they were still somewhat idealised.

 The Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432 by Jan van Eyck. This polyptych and the Turin-Milan Hours are generally seen as the first major works of the Early Netherlandish period. Van Eyck included landscape details in the lower portions.

The Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432 by Jan van Eyck. This polyptych and the Turin-Milan Hours are generally seen as the first major works of the Early Netherlandish period. Van Eyck included landscape details in the lower portions.

 The Lamentation, Juan de Flandes, active in Spain 1496-1519, Thyssen Museum, Madrid

The Lamentation, Juan de Flandes, active in Spain 1496-1519, Thyssen Museum, Madrid

Jean Colombe, one of the identified artists working on the amazing Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry illuminated manuscripts (c.1412-1416), did a beautiful landscape in one piece.

 Man of Sorrows, with Duke Charles I of Savoy and his wife, from 1485 to 1489; folio 75r, Jean Colombe

Man of Sorrows, with Duke Charles I of Savoy and his wife, from 1485 to 1489; folio 75r, Jean Colombe

Those early artists might not work en plein air as we define it today, but nonetheless, they clearly observed and recorded the outside, later to combine their impressions into the idealised landscapes they created.  Our pioneers, in other words, in plein air art...

(To be continued in Part 2 and beyond...)