This blog post was written by acclaimed artist, Kathleen Dunphy in 2012:
During a recent interview for an upcoming article, I was told by the interviewer that he has seen a trend by several well-known plein air artists toward painting less frequently out on location and spending more time in the studio, relying on memory, photos, and imagination to complete their paintings. He asked if this were the case for me. Although each of us has to find our own way through our art careers and the artists he mentioned are doing beautiful work, the answer for me couldn't be farther in the opposite direction.
I require time outside. When I first started painting in Alaska in the late 90's, I was doing mostly colored pencil dog portraits and still life drawing and paintings. I remember working as fast as I could to finish up in the afternoon, watching the clock anxiously, hoping to get done and get outside before dark (sometimes a great challenge in the short days of an Alaskan winter!). Time outside hiking, skiing, running, or just puttering around rejuvenated me, cleared my head and made me happy. When we moved back to California and I began attending the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in 2000, I was introduced to plein air painting and realized that I could combine my two loves: being outdoors and painting. What a concept! I was hooked immediately.
But even though my first attraction to plein air was that I could work outside, I later came to realize the myriad benefits of direct observation. As I stated in my last post, nothing can compare to being in the landscape that you're painting. The sounds, smells, and feel of an area are somehow transferred through the artist and onto the canvas. Colors are truer and so much more complex in real life than in a photograph. There is a communion with a higher source - God, Nature, the Creator, whatever you want to call it - that happens for me when I'm out there. On the days when the stars are aligned and the paintings work, it's such a high to capture that moment on canvas and preserve that slice of time. Of course, not every day outside is a perfect experience that yields a successful painting; in fact, the vast majority of my plein air studies never go further than the burn pile. But the education and stimulation that comes from being outside is integral to my development as an artist.
All that said, yes, I do paint in the studio and yes, I do enjoy it. With a plein air painting, I only have a relatively short period of time to paint before the light has changed. So often I get frustrated and wish I could develop the painting further, or I wish I had designed the painting differently, or I want to add animals to the scene that won't stay still long enough to paint them on location.
That's when I head to the studio. It's an entirely different discipline for me, one that is much slower-paced and more analytical. Outside, I react to the scene, trying to convey the emotion of the moment. Indoors, I use my intellect (and all the finer points they taught us in art school!) to construct my painting. I always strive to have the excitement of the study come through in the studio paintings, and my best work is a balance of both emotion and reason.
Right now, I'm in the studio looking at a study I painted two days ago on the Mokelumne River. It's a relatively simple-looking scene of rocks in the water, but the infinite amount of subtle information that was in front of me was mind-boggling. I spent two hours observing and painting....and listening to the water and the birds and the wind in the trees. I looked at the photos that I took that day, and I don't hear anything. But when I see that painting, I hear birdsong and the sound of water tumbling over rapids. The trick now, as I take out a larger canvas and start on my next studio piece, will be to make that music indoors.