Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting

The Irvine Museum has an interesting show up this summer:  Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting.  It’s an exhibition of early California Impressionist paintings paired with contemporary plein air paintings.  Many of the paintings are from private collections.  The viewer can compare and contrast the techniques, the subject matter, or the sizes of the paintings.  The museum offers little commentary on the matter, which is refreshing, so the observations are entirely those of the viewer.  Here are mine:

  • The older paintings are often larger than the newer ones. 16 in. x 20 in., 20 in. x 30 in., or even larger, are not uncommon sizes for the California Impressionist paintings. The newer paintings are more frequently 12 in. x 16 in. or smaller.
  • The earlier paintings are often more carefully painted, with more precise strokes and harder edges than the newer ones. Many of the newer ones are very think paint applied very quickly—not slapdash, but also not carefully controlled. The influence of the intervening century of abstract painting, perhaps?
  • The color palettes of all of the painters are similar. Few if any blacks, no strikingly different color ranges such as illustrators might use. The individual pigments might be different now from a century ago, but the range of colors are similar. And in this show, mostly California colors and light.

While this is a nice exhibition, and an interesting conceit, it’s also true that none of these paintings represent the best work of the earlier artists, and probably not the contemporary painters, either. I don’t mean these aren’t good paintings—they are.  A couple of them are very good indeed (take special note of the Ken Auster painting of houses near the beach). But not every show can be full of masterpieces.

In fact, as I think about it, these are plein air paintings.  A plein air painting can only be worked on for a couple of hours during the day, or the light changes too much.  I suspect the larger early pieces were painted over a couple of days, at the same time each day. But they’re not studio pieces, which can be worked on for longer periods.

And maybe that’s part of the point of the show:  that plein air paintings can be nice, even very good—but they are rarely masterpieces.

Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting runs through October 2, 2014.

Have you seen the show?  What did you think?  Do you like plein air painting?

Advertisements