“Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all,” wrote American essayist and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1836 essay “Nature.”
Leading American luminist painter Joseph McGurl seeks such an experience every time he creates a plein air (open-air) painting. McGurl’s plein air paintings are the cornerstone of his award-winning landscape paintings.
The luminist style of painting, as the name suggests, is all about light and also its spiritual significance. American artists, inspired by the Hudson River School painters, began painting in the luminist style in the late 19th century, although the term “luminism” wasn’t coined until 1954.
Characteristically, a luminist painting is a landscape or seascape painted in crisp, cool colors, with an expansive sky and meticulously detailed objects that are cleverly illuminated by light. The luminist artist blends his or her brushstrokes to such an extent that they disappear, creating a finely finished painting that wholly focuses the viewer’s attention on the wonder of nature.
McGurl’s Love for Landscape Painting
McGurl was profoundly influenced by the 19th-century landscape paintings he saw as a high school student. He’d been attending Saturday art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, but he had no idea that he was viewing luminist painting. He was just fascinated by the realistic depictions.
McGurl’s profound love for nature comes from growing up outside of Boston in a town called Quincy, where small houses with small lots lined the streets, giving him a sense of claustrophobia. But the backyard of his family home backed onto the ocean, where he enjoyed spending time exploring the islands by swimming, water skiing, and sailing with his siblings. That gave him an immense sense of freedom.
McGurl’s father was a notable muralist, who inspired Joseph with his strong work ethic that was needed to feed his five children. McGurl was never taught landscape painting. He went to an art college but didn’t learn much, as the instructors weren’t skilled at teaching representational painting and drawing. But it was those early experiences in Boston that most profoundly influenced his decision to paint landscapes.
Why Plein Air Paintings?
For artists in the late 18th and 19th centuries, plein air paintings were solely scientific studies that were created to understand natural phenomena. They weren’t finished paintings in and of themselves. John Constable’s cloud studies, for instance, show the cloud formation coupled with copious descriptive notes and meteorological details. Oftentimes, he’d only suggest the land mass as a scribble of paint at the bottom of the sketch.
For McGurl, having a direct connection with nature is essential when he paints in the luminist style. It’s one of the reasons he creates plein air paintings, and why he never uses photographs in his artistic process. Luminism is all about light and spirituality, he explained by phone, and a photograph has neither of those qualities. “A photograph has no light. If you turn off the light bulb that’s shining on it, there’s no light emanating from that photograph.”
He added that because photographs contain no light, painting from a photograph means that an artist is not painting light but is painting colors, matching one color to another. For McGurl, painting out in the field is essential for him to be able to interpret the light and sensations necessary for his paintings.
McGurl uses his plein air paintings as investigative tools, as his peers did centuries ago, to deepen his understanding of nature. Sixty percent of his plein air paintings are purely scientific studies. He’s not interested in creating a finished plein air painting out in the field per se, but if he does, it’s often sold in his studio.
Throughout his plein air paintings, McGurl stays true to the scene in front of him by meticulously interpreting what he sees. And more than that, he paints beyond the surface experience, conveying an ethereal beauty. Each of McGurl’s plein air paintings reflects a conversation he’s had with nature, evoking the sensations and sentiments that were true to him at that moment in time.
Plein Air Painting Challenges
“Plein air painting is the most difficult type of painting there is, because you have a limited amount of time to work before your light changes—and your light changes continually,” he said. McGurl loves the many challenges of painting landscapes and seascapes under such conditions.
For instance, when he is painting the ocean, besides the constantly changing light and the tide coming in and going out, a momentary gust of wind can instantly disperse the beautiful reflections that he was painting, transforming his subject matter into waves or ripples.
Sometimes the subject matter can even sail away. McGurl recalls teaching a painting workshop in a harbor. A group of students were painting a cute little boat when about an hour into the painting, they watched as a man got into a rowboat, rowed out to the sailboat, and sailed away.
Another challenge of painting in nature is how to translate the great variety of details and textures into paint—from the thousands of leaves on one tree, to the millions of trees in a distant forest, to myriad moving clouds crisscrossing the sky.
Creating Plein Air Paintings
McGurl found the French Academy sight-size method helpful when he learned to draw figures, and he adapted the practice. In the original sight-size method, artists would place their panel or canvas right next to their subject and walk back 10 feet or so and put a mark on the floor. The mark is the looking spot where they’d view the scene. They would walk up to the panel and make some marks, and then walk back to the looking spot and check to see if the marks are in the right relationship to the subject that’s being painted.
Because landscape artists can’t put their canvas next to the sun or next to a mountain that’s 10 miles or so away, McGurl places a frame next to his panel. So, everything he sees in the frame he can transfer onto his panel at the exact same size as seen through the frame.
This is the method he uses to paint and to teach his students.
Throughout McGurl’s plein air painting process, he’s meticulously trying to understand every aspect of the scene. “When I’m plein air painting I’m dissecting nature, and then reassembling it on my panel,” he said.
Each time McGurl paints outside, he’s interpreting the light and forecasting the elements—oftentimes at a lightning pace. He likens it to painting time itself.
For instance, when painting a sunset he has a real sense of painting the future, the present, and the past. At first, when he’s setting up to paint, he’ll survey the scene, the sun, the clouds, and other elements, to determine what he believes is going to happen. That’s when he’s painting the future. It’s a finely balanced process with only one shot to get it right because if the values of the painting are too dark or too light, the painting is ruined. Once McGurl has painted his prediction, there’s a small window of around five minutes when he paints the present, the actual sunset. At that time, he’ll adjust his painting to show the sunset as it unfolds before him, painting until the sky darkens. Then he begins to paint the past, painting the sunset from his recent memory.
Creating a plein air sunset painting is over in as little as 20 minutes, but the time it takes to make each study varies as much as the weather itself. Ideally, he’ll spend three hours painting one piece.
In the Studio
In the field, McGurl is closely copying the scene, but in the studio he’s not copying the plein air painting—he’s being inspired by it.
For instance, he is currently working on an Italian hillside scene in his studio. He’s using a plein air painting in which the top of a distant mountain was illuminated by the sun setting behind it. As he started working on the painting in the studio, he changed the sunlight so that the viewer is looking at the sun and the mountain is in silhouette. So it’s not a copy of the plein air sketch; it is inspired and influenced by it, but all the features in the landscape painting he’s creating are made up of elements that he saw when he was there painting on location.
McGurl is repeatedly inspired by his plein air paintings. For example, he made 12 different sketches of an Italian rustic house 10 years ago. Each painting he makes in the studio from those plein air paintings will look completely different from the sketches that inspired them. The architecture is the same but the atmosphere and orientation in each scene differs.
“Like the transcendentalists, I believe that in nature you can almost experience that connection between you and something greater,” he said. In that same spirit, McGurl’s meticulously made luminous paintings must act as conduits to nature’s divinity—or transparent eyeballs, Emerson might say.
To find out more about luminist painter Joseph McGurl, visit JosephMcGurl.com