"We paint from life in order to learn how to see.
If you can paint light, you can paint everything under the sun."
Frank LaLumia, PAPA Signature Member
Painting from life is a pursuit unlike any other painting technique. It challenges artists to concentrate every sensory nerve on the information in front them. They absorb it all, from sight to sound, from temperature to atmosphere, and then channel those feelings from head to hand, re-creating their impression in paints on paper or canvas.
Looking for Truth. The roots of painting from life are found in 19th-century Europe. Englishman John Constable believed the artist should forget about formulas and trust his own vision in finding truth in nature. To find that truth, he made sketches outdoors, then elaborated on them in the studio.
Around the same time in France, in a small village outside Paris called Barbizon, a group of artists focused their attentions on peasant life and the natural world surrounding it. Like Constable, Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet challenged conventions of the day, choosing everyday subjects rather than the traditional cliches and presenting them in realistic settings, the information for which came from sketches made in the field.
Realism to Impressionism.These realists, as they came to be called, created the groundwork for the mid-19th century revolution in France that took painting from life to its logical conclusion. Lead by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edouard Degas, Auguste Renoir, et. al. the impressionists espoused the belief that you should trust your eyes. Using newly developed theories of how the eye physically registers color, they maintained that what you
saw in nature was not form, but rather light on form. And light could be conveyed by color. To prove their theories, they took their newly invented paint tubes* with them into the outdoors, where they re-created the world as colors that suggest light. Rebuffed at first for what appeared to be unfinished paintings, the impressionist vision soon became a standard for truthfully conveying the outdoor experience.
On-Location. Painting en plein air (in the open air) would forever change how we see the world. Late 19th-century artists in the United States were attracted to the concept, and many, including Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, John Singer Sargent, Guy Rose, and Frederick Frieseke visited Monet's Giverny. Suddenly, places with remarkable light were of particular interest to painters. Art colonies formed throughout the country in the early 20th century, notably on both the East and West Coasts. The goal of teachers and students alike was to capture the light and colors peculiar to the place. William Wendt in California and Childe Hassam in New York are two of many artists who would form the American impressionist school.
Today, painting from life is a pursuit that continues to challenge the finest artists in the world, and no group is better known for upholding the credo of excellence than the Plein-Air Painters of America.
*American painter John Goffe Rand patented the collapsible metal squeeze tube in 1841.
Paintings from top to bottom:
William Wendt, Where Peace Abides,The Athenaeum Museum
John Constable, A Plowing Scene in Suffolk, National Gallery of Australia
Claude Monet, Port-Goulphar, Belle-Ile, Art Gallery of New South Whales
Childe Hassam, Flags on Fifty-Seventh St, The Winter of 1918, The New York Historical Society