Photography, in its infancy, represented both a formative influence on and a threat to Impressionist painters. The two art forms—one on canvas, one on film—may have come from the same desire to reach out to a fleeting, lovely piece of the world—a sunrise, a sailboat, a lily pond in the afternoon, a twirling dancer—grasp it, and hold it fast forever, but despite that shared goal, the media couldn’t be more disparate.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Photography inspired Impressionists to rapidly paint snapshots—impressions—of the world around them, many of these done en plein air, or in the open air. But the new medium was also seen as Impressionism’s modern, more accurate replacement. In return, Impressionism, and the plein air genre it advanced, presented an alternative to photography, something freer, wilder, and more subjective. The camera was a machine, conveying technical, objective truths; the brush’s vibrant colors and bold strokes exuded the soul of a subject. Abandoning the pursuit of crisp accuracy, the painter was free to extract from the world what he or she pleased.
“A good plein air painting gives you the essence of the place,” said Chuck Kovacic, a Los Angeles artist participating in this year’s Plein Air Festival, organized by the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. While successful plein air painting should capture elements such as weather, light, and time of day, he emphasized, it also must communicate the inner emotional landscape of the artist.
That’s why, out of the 50 artists participating in this year’s festival, it’s safe to say no two works will look remotely similar. The festival, which kicked off Monday, Oct. 3, and continues through Sunday, Oct. 9, attracts plein air artists from all over California and beyond.
Of course, photography has long since been widely accepted as a fine art form in its own right, plein air painters still paint landscapes unperturbed, and you’d think neither genre would have anything left to prove. You’d be mistaken.
“I don’t have the same respect for photographers as I do for painters,” admitted Ken Christensen, a longtime participating artist in the festival.
Out of a few hundred shots, he said, the photographer is bound to create at least one good image, if only by sheer chance. Not so, he continued, for the painter.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Whether or not you agree with him in that regard, the Los Osos artist has certainly earned his cred in the world of painting, having spent years illustrating the streets and countrysides of Europe, taken life drawing courses at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and worked as an official copyist at the Louvre. Christensen also founded the New Fauves, a highly talented (if pretentiously titled) group of contemporary painters working in the style and spirit of the great French Fauves.
At this year’s festival, Christensen is in the fine company of such artists as Atascadero native John Barnard, whose wonderfully expressive, brilliantly colored landscapes often teeter breathlessly on the brink of abstraction. His flamboyantly blooming hills, scribbled pink skies, orange forests, and crashing waterfalls are so effortlessly rendered as to seem accidental, yet immediately evocative of the emotional and physical place in which they were conceived.
“The older I get, the freer I get,” Barnard said of his bold, unapologetic works. “I am not a camera.”
Barnard takes inspiration from abstract art as well as from the artists of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. And having spent a good deal of his working life in Mexico and Venezuela, he takes considerable influence from Mexican muralists as well. (Barnard recalled attending a Communist meeting in Mexico simply because it was led by Diego Riviera. As one might guess, his reasons for attending were more artistic than political. “I didn’t like the same paintings Stalin liked, so I could never be a Communist,” he said.)
An actor who specializes in doing impersonations of Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, and Sherlock Holmes at corporate events, Chuck Kovacic sees several parallels between painting and the performing arts.
“A painting is a performance of a different sort,” he said. “The canvas is the stage.”
Kovacic likens the unplanned nature of plein air painting to improvisational theater.
The festival, too, is very much a week of organized spontaneity. Artists paint throughout the week, and their original creations are made available to view and purchase during the weekend.
On Thursday, the museum presents Painters and Poets, a reading of poetry its authors wrote while shadowing painters on location. A collector’s luncheon takes place on Friday, and a public opening follows that evening, coinciding with Art After Dark, where awards will be presented by festival juror Libby Tolley. Saturday morning offers a Quick Draw Paint Out, in which artists, spread out over a one-block radius from the museum, have 2 1/2 hours to create a piece that will, that very afternoon, be exhibited and auctioned off—allowing local art lovers to witness a new impression, if you will, of the place they call home.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner is a hipster fauve. Send mustaches and fangs to email@example.com.