Open air confessions

It’s the first question I am asked when people scrutinise my watercolours. 

Did you do this ‘en plein air’? 

Some people ask it out of curiosity, wanting to understand my process. I guess its also a useful way of breaking the ice. Then there are those that I suspect want to assess the ‘authenticity of the work’. 

Well, my reply is nuanced. Of course the impressionists got it right. Their predecessors did most of their work in the studio, mainly for practical reasons. Pigments had to be ground using raw pigments. This process made painting less portable, being confined to the studio. The advent of tubed oil paints and soon after – hard cakes of watercolour pigments – enabled artists to get out there…to see the landscape in the raw. Watercolour paints produced in metal tubes were developed by Winsor & Newton in 1846.  

Without doubt painting in the open air transformed our appreciation of landscapes. Vivid pigments were used to capture the changing details of weather and light – by impressionists and post impressionists alike: think of the vivid brushstrokes of Delacroix, JMW Turner, Monet, Pissaro and others that transformed our appreciation of landscapes and scenes of real life. 

So here I am with my camera doing the unthinkable – taking my photo back to the ‘studio’. Breaking the rules that al fresco painters seemingly held so dear. But here is my response to ‘plein air’ devotees about my approach. You make up your own mind whether it captures the essence of ‘en plein air’. 

Before listing the things ‘I do and don’t do’ plein air, perhaps it is worth explaining that I am an MS sufferer. I state this not to elicit sympathy or to justify a limited ‘al fresco’ approach. Instead, I use it to explain the benefits of my own immersive experience. 

What I do ‘al fresco’ 

  • I do take my powerchair cross-terrain, risking a flat battery, being stuck in the mud or worst of all encountering a camber that takes me careering into a lake 
  • I do sit (in my wheelchair) in situ – observing, noting, feeling, witnessing.  
  • I do compose, select, modify my viewing angle (within the geometric reach contraints of my chair) 
  • I do witness first hand changing scenes, events, weather.  
  • …and yes, I do use a camera (ouch….) and take many, many photos. 

What I don’t do ‘alfresco’ 

  • I don’t suffer for the cause. Being a stoic comes naturally to MS sufferers. We don’t have to seek out storms…they come to us. 
  • I don’t transport my equipage – paints, water, easel…dodgy moustache. Nor do I employ an entourage of helpers to keep me supplied in clean water and to pick up brushes when I drop them. 
  • I don’t commit to paper. The world of vision for MS folk is different. In the field, optic neuritis presents a scene as if I were looking through the bottom of a milk bottle. The scene appears in a more abstract world of colour and emotion. Only by purloining a snapshot and returning to the cool enclosure that is home – does the optical inflammation subside. Then through the wonders of photography am I able to see the scene for the first time in all its clarity. 

You decide 

So there we have it. You have some insight into my process. Make your own judgement. I certainly suffer for my art. I am a witness to the world around me. Abstraction comes naturally to those with a messed up brain and senses. I think our impressionist and post-impressionist heroes would give me the thumbs up. After all, en plein air was never meant to be a dogma. Weren’t they quick to embrace new portable technologies? Isn’t the camera one such technology that is surely part of the ‘en plein air’ experience? Each time I return to my studio (kitchen table) I greedily consume the rich colours portrayed in a photograph that I only had a hint of when I was out on the road. My paintings convey a world that I only witnessed in the side mirror – imperfectly – in the raw. 

Let me know when Eddy publishes a new blog.

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