Plein air painting isn’t highbrow, but it speaks to my soul.
La casa de los abuelitos, by Carol L. Douglas
“You’re lucky to love to do something that people love,” Clif Travers told me soon after we’d met. He meant that sincerely. It’s easier to sell landscape paintings than the large-scale installation piece he’s working on.
The earliest known “pure landscapes” (with no human figures) are Minoan murals dating from around 1500 BC. Landscape flowered in Rome, Egypt and China. It died out in western art and was rediscovered in the Renaissance.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas
In China, the mountain-water ink painting was traditionally the most valued form of picture. Here in the west, landscape occupied a low position in the accepted hierarchy of genres, which went:
- History, including all that allegorical stuff;
- Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
- Still life.
This hierarchy was established in 16th century Italy. It elevated those things which rendered the universal essence of things (imitare) over the mere mechanical copying of appearances (ritrarre). While the Impressionists did much to knock this on its head, there’s still a decided whiff of lowbrow to landscape painting, particularly the plein air variety. I think it’s because people actually like it.
Some days it rains, by Carol L. Douglas
The 17th century Dutch Golden Age painters were among the first artists with middle-class customers, so it’s no surprise that they painted lots of landscape. But they were conflicted about it. Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was the century’s most important art critic. He called landscape paintings “the common footmen in the army of art.” But he also recognized that landscape “provides scope for artistic freedom, for coloristic virtuosity and for chance: for a dialogue between Mother Nature and the artist’s own innate ability.”
It’s surprisingly difficult to find data on what genres of art sell the best, but I did find this top-ten list from Art Business Today. It's for the UK art market, but ours isn't much different:
- Traditional landscapes
- Local views
- Modern or semi-abstract landscapes
- Figure studies (excluding nudes)
- Seascapes, harbor, and beach scenes
- Impressionistic landscapes
Beach Grass (Goosefare Brook) by Carol L. Douglas
Obviously, none of us invented landscape painting, but each of us invents ourselves as landscape painters. When we start out, there’s absolutely no market for our work. We create that market through dialogue. We produce our first paintings, gauge the audience’s reaction (through sales and critiques), and then refine our message and reenter the fray with new work. That’s an ongoing process throughout our careers. It’s no different from many other lines of work.
There are artists working out there in splendid isolation, not caring what the audience thinks, but they’re very rare. For most of us, painting is a dialogue, and the other half of the dialogue is the buying public.
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
Most artists don’t shape their work because a certain kind of landscape painting will sell better (although we are influenced by our peers and gallerists). But the best feedback we get is often in the form of a purchase.
I don’t paint en plein air because I think it’s somehow higher on a hierarchy of landscape. I do it because it appeals to me on a soul level. My friend Brad Marshall once said, “My clients don’t care if I did it in the studio or out. They only care about the quality of the work itself.” Plein air is not, in itself, a virtue. It’s only when it helps the painting become transcendent that it matters.