The summer has been good for plein air painting here in Vermont. I organized a group of painters this summer to create plein air paintings for an exhibit held at the MAC Center for the Arts that was done in collaboration with Memphremagog Watershed Association and the Orleans County Natural Resources Conservation District (OCNRCD). The final exhibit not only had lovely plein air paintings but also lots of educational material from OCNRCD about the conservation practices such as grass waterways, riparian buffer planting, strip cropping and pasture rotation.
On the last day of the exhibit the artists gathered for afternoon tea and an Artist talk where we shared “The Joys and Challenges of Plein Air Painting”. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this and we had a proper tea party with china tea cups, cucumber sandwiches and scones with strawberry and cream.
Well, you know how I enjoy the fusion of science and art. In the process of preparing for this talk I found out that it was a few technological advances that gave a boost to plein air painting. First in was availability of paint that could easily be brought into the field. After setting up shop in 1766 William Reeves (UK) began selling the first water soluble dry cake watercolors. By 1780 a bit of honey was added to the formulation to make the paint pliable for manufacture in various ways. Honey is a natural humectant, attracting and retaining moisture.
Secondly and perhaps most importantly, John Goffe Rand (1801-1873) patented the first collapsible metal tube for artist’s oil paint on September 11, 1841. He had traded off his European patent for the tubes to appease creditors. At the time, the best paint storage was a pig’s bladder sealed with string; an artist would prick the bladder with a tack to get at the paint. But there was no way to completely plug the hole afterward. And bladders didn’t travel well, frequently bursting open. I must say that would be enough to keep me from plein air painting. Now the impressionists could abandon the studio and its confining academic painting techniques. This gave a big boost to plein air painting and certainly one of the reasons the Impressionists are credited with championing plein air painting. Pierre-Auguste Renoir said, “Without colors in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism.”
Finally, it was during the mid-19th century that the box easel, typically known as the French box easel or field easel, was invented. It is uncertain who developed it, but these highly portable easels with telescopic legs and built-in paint box and palette made it easier to go into the forest and up the hillsides. In present time, there are many variations of this portable easel.
Contemporary Plein Air painters live in a great time. To say plein air painting is ‘catching on’ is an understatement. This, I believe, is the golden age of plein air painting. In a world of forgeries, cheap knock off from China and ‘anything is art’, plein air paintings have a unique authenticity and freshness. I am now energized for the season of plein air with the Plein Air Palm Beach group of artists.