Many Artists Began Painting Outside During the Pandemic—And They Might Never Go Back Inside

“It seemed like the safest way to get together,” Treib tells me. “This is a very different act for me, and takes me out of my element, considering that I usually work in isolation. But, occasionally and especially now, I find it important to work side by side with other artists and to feel a connection among us.” Or as the artist Jeremy Miranda put it to me, “painting outdoors has always been an intensely joyful experience. But now there is this layer that makes it feel as though I’m there seeking medicine.”

The tradition of plein air painting—painting outdoors—grew in popularity with French artists in the mid–19th century, when, for the first time, they were able to buy portable easels and oil paint in tubes. The idea was to make portraits of nature under the changing conditions of light and weather and season. Going out into the landscape became an important element of French Impressionism, as it had in the United States with the Hudson River School and the Luminists, who practically deified Mother Nature in all her bounties—mountains, forests, wildlife.

Variations of the practice have popped up through the years, from Thomas Cole’s 19th-century allegories of nature to the bravura abstractions that Julian Schnabel painted on his Long Island tennis court starting in the 1980s to Cecily Brown’s first outdoor mural, a collaboration with local artists and students in Buffalo, New York, this summer. And of course, there’s David Hockney, the granddaddy of modern plein air painting with his Grand Canyon works in the 1990s and the famous Yorkshire landscapes he made in the 2000s with his iPhone and iPad. He’s continued in the medium, recently painting  a 288-foot-long frieze that goes on view at the Musée de l’Orangerie, in Paris, this month. It celebrates the passing of the seasons at his property in Normandy, where he’s had a top-notch COVID experience because he’s been able to get so much work done.

The idea of an artist going out into nature with palette and easel had become a cliché—something for Sunday painters. Since the pandemic struck, however, more and more artists are working outdoors. The reasons are obvious: safety, freedom from masks, an escape from the great indoors and the ubiquitous online viewing rooms—not to mention that many artists lost their studios for financial or health reasons. Over the past couple of months, I talked with a number of new-wave plein air artists about how and why they’re reinventing the genre.

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