Plein Air

In May, Claude Monet’s “Meules” sold for $110.7 million. It is one of eight privately held paintings in Monet’s haystacks series (the other seventeen are owned by museums). The last prior haystack to be auctioned, in 2016, sold for $81.4 million. That nine-figure mark is the highest price for an Impressionist painting — a new record. “Meules” is a plein air painting.

“It’s a great retirement gig, is what I call it,” said Mick McGinty, a plein air painter based in Phoenix, AZ. McGinty, who is also my uncle, has been an artist his entire professional life. Plein air painting, a tradition of which the French Impressionists are a part, is “open air” painting — setting up an easel, canvas, brushes, tubes of paint and maybe an umbrella and painting what is in front of you in “true sunlight,” as McGinty put it.

In his 20s, McGinty migrated from Nebraska to Southern California. He found work drawing pastel portraits at Knott's Berry Farm. It was 1974. After completing his degree in illustration, he was hired by Willardson and White Design in Santa Monica. In the next four decades, he illustrated album covers, movie posters and major product advertising campaigns. He has worked with Adidas, McDonalds, MTV, the NFL, Universal Studios and others. The poster for Super Bowl 34, McGinty. Dragnet’s movie poster, McGinty.

“As an illustrator you get paid to paint someone else’s idea,” he noted. “I’m just there as an artistic talent to bring to fruition something they can use. With plein air, it’s totally up to me.”

In 2007, McGinty moved to Arizona and began to focus on his oil painting. “It’s my chance to paint in my style. I get to pick my subject matter. I get to paint in my format,” he said. “It’s the ultimate artist being an artist.”

Painting en plein air is a recent artistic tradition, starting mid-19th century with the advent of a pivotal invention, metal paint tubes. Tubes allowed the painter and canvas to travel and paint freely outside. “Everything out in the real is so much more brilliant, so much more colorful,” McGinty noted.

Plein air artists gather throughout the country, but events in the Southwest are the pinnacle, including the capstone event at the Grand Canyon’s Celebration of Art. This year, the national park’s centennial, promises even more hype. Only twenty-three artists were selected, and it contains elite plein air artist like Bill Cramer and Robert Goldman.

In the quick draw plein air format — the typical format for competitions — artists are given a designated area of land to work within. They can study and prepare in the days prior, but on the day of the event, their canvases are stamped in the morning and they begin at 8:00AM sharp. They paint for two hours, then must present their painting “framed up” for display. Judges evaluate paintings and an auction ensues. Select paintings can reach the high four-figures and occasionally five-figures.

Paintings are judged on originality, composition, color and how well the artist captured the scene. But at the end of the day you’re at the mercy of the judges and — if you want to sell well — the patrons. Still, McGinty paints for himself. “No one’s going to tell you to change it afterwards,” McGinty noted.

“To me, the real magic of a painter is to look at something, break it down into its simplest form, stroke it in and it looks just great,” McGinty said. “And that’s how I want to paint. I want to be an impressionist who doesn’t linger over his work and somehow leaves all that magic and paint hanging there on the canvas.”

For reference, he mentioned the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, the American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent and Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida. “I want really thick, expressive paint. I don’t want to put all this detail in. I want it to look like a painting first and a scene second.”

“My perfect painting would be a painting that looked real at a distance but the closer you get the more you see that the painting is just abstract brushstrokes. And from a distance it falls together. It’s your impression. It’s the real magic in painting.”

As for western landscapes, McGinty labors to capture light and structure. “A really good plein air painter will get up at dark and try to get out there at the break of light.” Mornings are primetime, as well as the end of the day. “Your western skies, because of the dust that’s kicked up, they’re always a lot more colorful.”

And compelling subject matter isn’t hard for McGinty to find in the Southwest. He is content with what his eye sees in the desert. As he said, “You just never get tired of painting these distant buttes.”

All paintings by Mick McGinty. Gallery at top.

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