Jean Perry doesn’t have one single approach to taking a plein air study up to a larger size in the studio. She has three, in part because painting is problem-solving, and things change as a piece progresses.
“Navajo Country,” by Jean Perry, 2010, oil, 24 x 36 in. Collection Jeanelle Waldrop. Studio
Perry, who splits her time between Tucson, Arizona, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, lets her working process adapt to the situation. Sometimes it’s a matter of how strong the plein air study is. Perry can make even a weak plein air piece into a strong studio painting, a topic she plans to discuss and illustrate at the 2014 Plein Air Convention & Expo. Other times, the unfolding studio piece starts taking an unexpected turn, and the artist develops that. When she heads out into the field, Perry is intent on executing a good painting, first and foremost. “Most of the time, I really want to get a complete painting when I’m working outdoors,” says Perry. “I don’t want to have to do any major modifications back in the studio. But I want to get the emotions I feel and express what I see. Sometimes it doesn’t work and you don’t know why, but you take it home and think about it and look at it and try to figure out why it doesn’t succeed so you learn from it.”
“Autumn,” by Jean Perry, 2013, oil, 12 x 12 in. Collection the artist. Plein air
And sometimes you take the relatively weak piece home and find a way to make it work. But let’s start at the top — Perry says the most straightforward way she works in the studio is simply taking a successful plein air piece and painting a larger studio piece from it, adhering rather strictly to the field study’s composition and color. “In this case the original plein air piece must have enough information and strength of character to be translated into a large format, and I will need to have some experience and understanding of the subject so it will be believable and read true,” says Perry. “When I get a good painting that works all by itself — color and composition is good and it says what I want it to say — it can go out into the market. But if it would make a good larger painting, I first copy it, just make a larger painting of it.”
She acknowledges the inherent difficulties in this. The brushstrokes will have to be different, and there is less information in the plein air piece than she may need for a large painting. “There’s a certain excitement about the brushstrokes when you are out there painting,” says Perry. “There’s a good bit of emotion in it, and out in the field, your left brain isn’t getting in the way. In the studio, you try to have that same enthusiasm and put it in the larger painting. And some of the mountains in Monument Valley and the red rocks of canyons I’ve painted several times, so I understand them. I can use my imagination and memory to make larger, more detailed paintings.” Details such as animal anatomy must come from reference photography, Perry says.
“Changing Seasons,” by Jean Perry, 2013, oil, 40 x 36 in. Collection the artist. Studio
In the second of Perry’s three basic scenarios, the studio painting starts out as a larger version of the plein air piece, but at some point develops beyond it. “I can’t explain how it happens, but sometimes the larger piece grows and changes as I paint it,” says Perry. “The basic ideas are there — it is similar to the plein air piece. But it takes on a life of its own. It ends up making a different statement than the original plein air piece.” The artist recalls a complex scene she painted en plein air with mountains, fall foliage, evergreens, and water. As she worked on the larger piece, the dark and green of the evergreens took control of the larger piece.
“Tuscan Doorway,” by Jean Perry, 1996, oil, 12 x 10 in. Mr & Mrs Robert Neville. Plein air
The third way a painting may come about in Perry’s studio is through the assembly of various sources. “I will rearrange a small plein air piece, or combine two plein air pieces, and use a photo for more information,” she explains. Perry points to a painting she made based on a plein air study of a doorway in Tuscany. “It was beautiful all by itself, with roses growing on the side of the door, but a bicycle that was leaning against the building became the primary interest in the studio painting,” she says. In the end, Perry included a balcony that was in the scene, and much of the house.
“The Red Bike,” by Jean Perry, 1998, oil, 16 x 20 in. Private collection. Studio
So which of the three does Perry prefer? “All three ways produce successful paintings,” she says. “I probably use the bits-and-pieces method the most. There are a lot of panels in my studio — stacks of them — that I have to treat just as a study.”