In Plein Air, Painting the American Landscape, viewers accompany some of America's most acclaimed contemporary Plein Air landscape artists as they provide insights into the movement through their individual styles and techniques. This six-part series introduces viewers to the beauties of America while examining the historical roots of the painting style that defines the American landscape en plein air.
Plein Air (French for "open air") painting became popular in the early nineteenth century in both Europe and America when paint manufacturers made a wide range of pre-mixed oil pigments available for the first time, and the easily transportable box easel, or pochade (quick sketch) box, was developed. Artists could finally take their work into the field with ease—the artist could, as Monet wrote, "...paint the air in which are situated the bridge, the home, the boat."
These artists paint natural light, using color to define form. Plein Air artists generally paint "ala prima," laying down a scene with quick broad, colorful brush strokes, foregoing the typical 'building up' of paint. Depending on the light and weather, Plein Air paintings are generally done in one session. Artists often add final touches to their work once back in the studio.
Plein Air painters are drawn to places with a certain quality of light. From Alaska to Cape Cod, we will see the light and landscapes that draw today's artists and those who came before them.
The first three episodes of Plein Air, Painting the American Landscape feature artists Matt Smith, Jean LeGassick, and Kenn Backhaus as they paint in Alaska. The trio paints Mt. McKinley on a rare, glorious September afternoon complete with a visit from a blonde grizzly. Next our three artists tackle the Tongass Rain Forest, renowned for towering old growth cedar, hanging moss and incessant rainfall, proving that it takes tenacity, good gear, and considerable know-how to paint in a rain forest. The last stop is beautiful Resurrection Bay, gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. With the towering Chugach Mountains as a backdrop, the artists paint in a derelict boatyard.
Historical perspective is provided through the Plein Air paintings created by George Brown while climbing Mt. McKinley as a member of the 1974 Bradford Washburn Mt. McKinley Expedition, and an introduction to Alaskan Plein Air artists and adventurers Eustace Ziegler, Ted Lambert and iconoclastic painter Sidney Laurence whose paintings from the early 1900s have come to epitomize the Alaskan landscape.
Next, painter and teacher Charles Sovek takes viewers to his summer home and studio on Cape Cod. Highly engaging, Charles shares his perspective through 50 years as an artist, and demonstrates art in the making on the docks of the Provincetown boat harbor. Viewers also discover the rich history of the Provincetown artists' colony, from its founding by Charles Hawthorne in the late 1800s to the arrival of abstract expressionists Hans Hoffman and Jackson Pollack in the 1950s. This episode is dedicated to Charles Sovek, who died in June 2007.
Contemporary Plein Air artist Ron Rencher introduces viewers to the rich and colorful history of Taos, New Mexico in the fifth episode. Following a brief biographical sketch, Ron opens the door for a look at how the Pueblo (Tewa) Indians, the Santa Fe Railroad and a group of academically trained, highly skilled artists from the East Coast came together to give birth to the Taos artists' colony that is still active today. Viewers also visit the home and studio of the Taos Society of Artists' first president, Ernest Irving Couse. The episode ends with Ron providing a brief painting demonstration in the Sangre de Christo Mountains.
In the sixth and final episode, professional landscape painter Frank LaLumia demonstrates his command of both watercolors and oils as he paints the historic buildings of Trinidad, Colorado in watercolor, and uses oils at Three Ponds Farm in Central Michigan. We also visit the Irvine Museum in Southern California, home to an extensive collection of paintings by the famous California impressionist and Plein Air painters of the early 20th century. Commentary is provided by art historian and author Jean Stern, Executive Director of The Irvine Museum.
Plein Air painting is experiencing a renaissance in the United States. The charm of traditional landscape painting combined with the energy of the brush strokes and the magic of capturing light and shadow contribute to its popularity. Viewers will see a new vision of the American landscape, and come to know this very American art movement through Plein Air, Painting the American Landscape.
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