Thursday, September 22, 2011

Art History Day: Plein Air

As prophesied in the last post, I am indeed writing about Impressionism. Truth be told, I have yet to figure out how Ancient Near Eastern/Sumerian art could be influential or inspirational to my work, but OH YES I will find a connection! . . . next week.

This week, I couldn't get the idea of plein air painting out of my mind, and specifically the tube.

As I wrote on Monday, I recently purchased a French easel, and yesterday I started doing a little plein air painting. I'm not sure if it counts as plein air if you're painting 20 feet from your front door, but it works for me!

I have found my "Haystacks"!

We are so spoiled nowadays. Every product we use to paint is for sale at the local arts and crafts shop, but the artists of the past were not so lucky.

If I lived before 1841(which I clearly don't) and wanted to be a painter (which would be highly unlikely, considering I'm a woman), painting would have been a very difficult task. Imagine it's Renaissance Italy, I have chosen painting as my future profession. I couldn't do it part-time as I do now, spending most of my time watching a baby, grocery shopping, making dinner, etc., and squeezing painting in as I have time. No. I (and for this, imagine I'm male) would first become an apprentice in a workshop (ok, imagine I'm also about 13). I would learn from a master painter, but mostly I'd be his slave, grinding his pigments, mixing his colors, preparing his painting surfaces, etc., until I'd proven my worth enough to get his attention and actually learn how to paint. From what I understand, the handful of women painters before the modern movements were daughters of prominent male artists. There's no way a woman would become an apprentice to a non-relative.

pigments at a street market in India. Bet some of those colors are new!

So in the Renaissance, and for hundreds of years before and after, painting was a large-scale operation, and it had to be considering all the small jobs that needed to be done. There were no amateur artists or part-time artists. Professional artists were businessmen who ran shops full of other artists and workers.

It wasn't until "colormen" started mixing paints and selling them in pig bladders that amateur art was even possible. I'm finding a date of after 1700 on the pig bladders (c'mon! This isn't a scholarly blog.) The real date to remember is 1841, when the tin tube was invented. From then on, buying and transporting paint became much more convenient.

This made the plein air painting (painting outdoors, in nature) of the Impressionists possible. Mixing pigments with oil and other binders isn't really feasible when you're standing out in a field.

The Impressionist movement began in the 1870s. And these artists had in their ranks women AND women with children (gasp!). Pretty cool. By the 1870s, artistic tools had become so accessible that women (albeit rich women who probably had servants) could paint in their free time.

Berthe Morisot's daughter in the garden

I feel so lucky to have the luxury to paint where I want, when I can. Sometimes I complain about how long it takes me to set up and clean up, but it's nothing compared to what artists had to do hundreds of years ago. I need to remember this as I paint on the front lawn during Everett's naps. 

Beyond not needing to mix my own paints, I have access to every medium that's ever been invented, practically (I'm using medium to describe something you mix with your paints to change the characteristics somehow). If I want to try a new medium, I just go to The Artery or shop online. I'm imagining scarcity had a big impact on artists' technique in the past. There was a set of available mediums, and those are what you used. I'm glad we have the variety we do, but there's part of me that's jealous of a time when there was less variety, and painters knew how they mixed paint. Skip the experimenting and just paint!

Thinking about the past has played a big part in my life. My love of art history is one example. But I also think about what people ate in the past to inform my eating. And how people raised babies in the past to inform my child rearing. Not model, just inform. I find it very interesting and humbling to consider life before our time.

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