Banner - Artists as historian

Preserving more than history

As an artist—particularly a plein-air artist—you probably never give much thought to your role as historian. When you make a painting, you're doing more than depicting your impression of the subject; you also capturing a specific moment in the life of your subject. It's almost like taking a photograph.James painting on St. George Island, Florida

But unlike a typical photograph, your art shows how you saw the subject at the time you created it.

And unlike a photo which shows a specific instant, your art shows the scene over a period of time—the time you spent standing in the sun and sweating and fighting mosquitoes and ants. Or the time you spent in the biting wind, trying to keep your work from blowing away.

These things affect how you paint. They also affect the way your painting appears to others. The viewer sees these nuances, maybe without realizing it—and it moves the viewer in subtle ways.

Think about how you react to the work of different artists, particularly when they are painting the same type of subject. Certainly there's the style, the colors, and the composition. But there's also the mood—that intangible thing that makes us feel a certain way.

Making a good impression
Artists Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne were friends. They sometimes painted the same subjects, as shown by these two versions of the same subject—Pissarro's bright, colorful version and the Cezanne's darker, more austere version.

These two artists painted the same subject—a trail in France—each emphasizing something different. Trees versus houses. Brights versus darks. A sandy trail versus a muddy, rut-filled road.

Here's a comment from a New York Times review:

What's interesting is that we know where this place is. We could go there and see it today.

We probably don't have a photograph from that time, but we can see what it looked like 130 years ago—as filtered through the minds and talents of two artists who were there.

Pissarro painting - The Climbing Path L'Hermitage Pontoise

Cezanne painting - Landscape Auvers sur Oise








We see it. We paint it
So as artists, we paint what's there. We paint what we like, and it's not necessarily something monumental. It's just something that caught our eye, and in the future, our painting may be the only record that remains.

Here are two artists' versions of the same subject—a shack near Lakewood Heights in Atlanta—the first painted by me, and the second by Atlanta artist Patricia Hahn. As in the two examples above, you can see how two artists used different approaches.

I didn't give the old house much thought. It just caught my eye and I liked the starkness of the bright sunlit siding against the dark foliage. I emphasized the shadows. Patricia decided to paint a brighter, higher key version.

The house was recently demolished. It's gone. I'll bet these paintings are among the few remaining images.

Watercolor painting - Lakewood House 02








Pat Hahn watercolor painting - The Old Homestead








copyright James H. Stephens
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