The difference between field work and studio work is like the difference between note writing and novel writing. Whether the subject matter is a figure in a studio or a boat in a river, if it’s a sketch done in a couple of hours it is field work, to be regarded as a study, a statement of an impression made upon the artist. All the same knowledge is brought to bear, but it is characterized by spontaneity and brevity.
On the other hand, studio work—like a novel—is an orchestrated piece of art, carefully composed and brought to completion over some time. Usually, it is larger than field pieces and may have many layers. A studio piece, as I use the categorical title here, can be done en plein air (outdoors) over the course of several days, but it’s not just a note; it’s a whole symphony.
A picture of the differences is handy if you know the Beatles and their album, Let It Be. The original album was like a studio painting: smooth and orchestrated; voices, guitars and dozens of other instruments contributing to a piece of art that was monumental. Then, 33 years later, Paul showed us the field work, as it were, for that album in the release of Let It Be…Naked. Practice lines and conversation as well as the pure guitars and harmonized voices that would ultimately be woven into the original album, are heard here as ideas and notes and first swipes—no layering-in of “the wall of sound.”
My studio pieces are often created using several field pieces done en plein air or with a model, with written notes, sketches and reference photos. Sometimes they are drawn in with vine charcoal, sometimes with diluted paint. I like to have a transparent wash under these works, followed by a thick, pure-paint block-in. Then, after conversing with the surface, I will find and address the points that need restating and refining to convey the main idea of the painting clearly.
Field work is classified by its purpose, which is to record information. This information might be tapped into for a future studio piece, or it might be an end unto itself, such as to practice translating light or to capture a figure in a certain pose. Field work may be done in a literal field, or it may be done in a studio or a boat, but the purpose is to record information in a lively, real-life, true way. It’s akin to note-taking. The notes may stand alone, or they may become an article, or be seed for a book. If the work on it continues, a field work might become a studio work.
Most field studies are done alla prima (all-at-once). Many are done en plein air. Because the situation usually involves rapidly-changing light or a posed live model, much skill is required to translate and edit vast amounts of information and to handle the paint expertly so as to be brief and exact without being in a hurry.
This kind of painting was popularized by the Impressionists and is enjoying a great resurgence at present. I love painting in the field as I am almost always with other painters, whether in a studio situation where we all chip in for a model, or in a plein air situation where we all meet and paint out together. It is great fun; if it were a sport, this would be Extreme Painting, leaving all sissies behind.
Field paintings are generally priced lower than studio paintings, as they are usually smaller and less time has been spent in their creation. Many collectors started with artists’ field paintings for this reason, and as fame grew, the value of these paintings grew. I like field paintings because I can read an artist’s mind more easily in them. This is his impression, his immediate response to what he witnessed, spoken of clearly, succinctly and directly. By the time an artist has spent time with the idea of it and created a studio piece, a lot of the sweat has been cleaned off and there is a beautiful and complete idea left in place of the glimpse. I feel it’s the difference between talking with a new person, where a lot is left to my own imagination, and talking to a longtime friend, where all the question marks become periods, dashes or exclamation points. The question marks that are inherent in field work lend a certain tantalizing mystery and fun that a skillful artist can artfully convey.
Please Note: I am now represented exclusively by RS Hanna Gallery (website: rshannagallery.com).
When you find the painting that was meant for you, please call Shannon Hanna and tell her; it will be in your hands before you know it. Thank you.