Category Archives: Art History

Edgar Payne: the Scenic Journey. Worth the trip

If you have a chance to see Edgar Payne: the Scenic Journey, I recommend it.

I’m not sure how many people outside of the painting community—and the representational, “traditional” painting community at that—know who Edgar Payne was.  Payne was an early 20th Century California Impressionist painter. He also wrote a book called “Composition of Outdoor Painting,” which today’s plein air painters often cite as one of the most important books available on painting.

The exhibit ran at the Crocker Art Musem in Sacramento in early 2012.  It’s at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through October 13, 2012,  and then to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa (December 2, 2012 to March 24, 2013).  Apparently it is the largest collection of Payne’s work to be exhibited ever, and the show is amazing.  I saw it three times, in part because I will never have another chance to see these works in person again, ever. And partly because, well, the paintings are amazing.

The only word for this show is–wow!  This show is one of the most vital and energetic I’ve ever seen.  By “energetic,” I mean the energy Payne put into his paintings.  I’ll go out on a limb and say that, for the energy of the works, the painter Payne most reminds me of is Vincent Van Gogh. Not the style or subject matter, but the life force that comes through the paintings.

For a painter, to be able to walk up to these paintings and look at the brushstrokes is priceless.  Lots of juicy paint, applied with small brushes in the early paintings, larger brushes in the later ones.  I could imagine how much paint was on Payne’s brush to get the paint strokes left on the canvas. I finally understood the command my instructors have hammered me with—“use more paint!”  Thank you, Mr. Payne.

My personal favorites were the seascapes and the boats.  Painting moving water is a challenge. A) the water is moving, b) the light is moving, and c) water is colorless—so what color do you paint it? Here we get to see how Payne did waves crashing onto rocks, water flowing back off the rocks as the waves retreated, reflections of boats on waves.  Waves breaking onto shore in the moonlight, or cresting by the bow of a boat under sail. Subtle broken color brushstrokes to show the movement of the water. (Compare them to the lake scenes, for example, which are more about reflections than waves.  Still broken color, but the strokes are all horizontal or vertical, to capture the still water’s reflections.)  They’re fabulous.

And for a painter like me, actually seeing the works teaches me more about Payne’s theory of composition than reading his book does.  I’ve tried several times to read the book.  Let’s just say he was a better painter than writer.

No mere art review can do this show justice.  I heard someone from the Crocker say that this show had been one of their most popular openings (since they reopened in October 2010, I think). Deservedly so! If you can get to it–go see it!

Have you seen Edgar Payne: the Scenic Journey?  What did you think?