Lily Prince: Honing Plein Air

Lily Prince, Arles,1, Acrylic on canvas paper, 16”x16”, 2019, photo courtesy of the artist

Lily Prince makes lush plein air paintings depicting the essence of specific places around the world. By utilizing linear and color vocabularies, she creates pictorial fields which resemble disorienting topographical maps where time is fluid and frozen simultaneously. Lily prince shares with Art Spiel her background, ideas. process, and projects.

AS: You studied art at Rhode Island School of Design, Bard, and Skowhegan. Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to plein air painting.

Lily Prince: At RISD I never did plein air drawing or painting, it was all studio work. When I studied on their Rome program my senior year it never even occurred to me to plein air draw, which was quite a missed opportunity. it would have been great to keep a sketchbook of drawings of what I saw while exploring. I did walk all over that amazing city and absorb so much, I guess I was so immersed in looking that I never took the time to interpret and record those spectacular views, buildings, art.

Just before going to Bard for my MFA, I began painting at a park near my apartment, mostly out of curiosity. It felt like a challenge, it made me nervous. My first painting professor at RISD, Dean Richardson, said to always be nervous when you’re painting and drawing, like you have a plane to catch in a few minutes. So that’s how I knew it was right. And I fell in love with being able to make work while being out in nature. It was a gift to spend time outside and also feel I was accomplishing something. That sense of it being a challenge has never left me. Every new landscape I approach to draw from feels like an almost insurmountable challenge. There are always those first few moments, when I find my spot to work and begin, when doubtful thoughts echo within. Luckily, I can ignore that initial sentiment. But I always feel like I pit myself against nature, while at the same time connecting with it deeply and spiritually.

So when I got to Bard I immediately continued with plein air work, but only painting rather than drawing. I would return daily to the waterfall in the woods on campus, dragging very large canvases that I’d thrown in the back of my 1971 Oldsmobile station wagon, and paint in oils. Bugs love the smell, so I spent a lot of time picking dead ones out of the paint when I returned to the studio at the end of each day. I loved being in the woods at the edge of that waterfall, but the roar of the water was deafening. I couldn’t hear anything but that constant rush of water. Often, when a hiker suddenly walked up behind me to get past me on the path, I almost fainted from being lurched out of my reverie. That and the mosquitos were the only downside.

During my time at Bard, which is a summer intensive program that leaves each MFA candidate to pursue their research on their own during the year, I went to live for a few months each in both northern and southern California. That is when I began plein air drawing, doing at least one oil pastel drawing a day, mostly black-and-white, for 6 months. I learned so much– more than in art school, really– about how landscape space is made up of forms of light and dark. Just shapes of light and dark that fit together like a puzzle and change in scale. That was one of the most educational experiences I ever had. I started bringing my dog with me so I could feel more comfortable going deeper into the woods. It was a pivotal time for me creatively– all of Bard was–but especially because of the time spent working en plein air.

At Skowhegan I began with plein air drawing, but quickly moved on to do more memory-based paintings, working from early childhood memories and combining those with the simultaneity of my current experiences. They were large studio paintings, but always had landscape space as their backdrop. After a few years of working on that series I spent the next decade working abstractly, using patterns to create natural forms, and ending with a series of works I did for many years that were made entirely with my fingerprints. When I returned to plein air drawing and abstract landscape painting, almost unintentionally while teaching a summer drawing course, it felt like coming home. All the years spent on abstraction and pattern suddenly combined with those that had focused on landscape observation– that coexistence– is what defines my work today.

Lily Prince, Lago di Como, 22, Oil pastel on 300 lb paper, 55”x64”, 2018, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Can you tell me about your process?

Lily Prince: My paintings are inspired by my plein air drawings but are always composites of parts of a few different drawings rather than a painted depiction of just one drawing. I’m more concerned with capturing the energy and essence of a particular view and place. Because I work from multiple drawings, which are initially and primarily–although not exclusively–black-and-white, color becomes the exciting challenge in the studio. I remember Per Kirkeby at Skowhegan saying, in answer to my question about how he chose his palette, that it was totally arbitrary. I thought at the time he was avoiding an honest response but discovered later the same to be true for myself.

The change of materials and process, from plein air to studio work and from drawing to painting, keeps the work fresh. The drawing gesture is so important to me to maintain within a painting. It is an issue of speed that is palpable in the plein air work, which I try to maintain in the studio. By consistently continuing my drawing practice, the gesture stays ripe and translatable throughout mediums.

Lily Prince, American Beauty, Utah (Zion), Oil pastel on 300 lb paper, 30”x33”, 2019, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: I like David Shapiro’s description of your work as: “a learned scattering, the carefulness that counts, and the multiple humors of the body.“ What is your take on the co-existence of carefulness and scattering in your paintings and drawings?

Lily Prince: I think David defined it exactly. My work is very much a combination of careful observation and at the same time an intentional negation of any rigidity or cautiousness that can come with that attention. The emotive, expressive interpretations or multiple humors, through gestural, abstract mark-making, convey the essence of a particular space and place without getting too caught up in exactitude.

AS: Shapiro also says that the strength of your work derives from its “reliance on a devastating doubleness of vision. In Prince, one is observing both the pleasures of observation and a severe and principled devotion to abstraction.” Can you talk more about that?

Lily Prince: Everything, every place, has an energy that is palpable. When one takes the time to hone, pay attention and observe, the energy is easily perceived and can be translated into a language that is either visual, auditory or verbal. That is what art making is: commenting on, reacting to or translating the energy of an event, situation, thing, or place. The doubleness refers to the artist being both observer and interpreter. But also walking that line between reality and invention or representation and abstraction.

Lily Prince, American Beauty, Sonoran Desert, Oil pastel on 300 lb paper, 30”x33”, 2019, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: In your statement you argue that beauty is the greatest form of protest. That is an intriguing twist. Can you talk more about how you see the relationship between beauty and protest today.

Lily Prince: Obviously, there are many forms of protest and these days we need them all. They certainly are not mutually exclusive. Organizing masses of people to demand change is imperative, crucial to our survival but so is choosing thoughtfully how to live one’s life and making choices that consciously reflect one’s beliefs. Being vegetarian for 38 years is one way I feel I can affect change on a personal level. So is choosing to purchase organic food for decades and now seeing so many major food companies make and offer organic products. Using individual consumer power, which is a form of protest, is so important for change.

I define beauty as a vast term that encompasses consciousness, the pursuit of the making of things that have meaning, the discovery of solutions to problems, personal expression, and the seeking of knowledge. I’m not referring to just the classical sense of beauty. It is more about a sense of devotion to something greater than oneself (not as in organized religion, but rather spirituality: the connection to something greater than oneself and one’s self interests). Something that benefits humanity, nature, all species, the planet. Sounds a bit grand and hyperbolic, perhaps! But I think that the pursuit of beauty, defined as such, is these days a tremendous act of protest.

Scientists and artists who devote their time to being out in nature to record or reflect upon and bring attention to what is most important to our survival—nature– are engaged in an act of real protest. So much of the world has ignored the importance of this for too long and now we see where that has led us. It isn’t the easiest thing to be out in the landscape in difficult weather or uncomfortable surroundings struggling to capture and declare some element of the elements as vital. It certainly isn’t heroic, but I do see it as an act of protest.

Lily Prince, Arles,2, Acrylic on canvas paper, 16”x16”, 2019, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Your work takes you to places with diverse landscapes, like New York’s Hudson Valley, Italy, France. How do you choose where to paint and how does your approach to painting “Lago di Como” differ from painting “Arles” for example?

Lily Prince: I choose where to plein air work based on some practical considerations, such as where I might be invited to be an artist-in-residence or where I might want to explore or where I might be able to plunk myself down and live for a time. There are certain landscapes that although I might find stunningly beautiful and inspiring–such as many beach locations, or the woods deep in the mountains– just don’t have what I’m looking for artistically, such as deep space with varied patterns of fertile growth and ample sky. A place must also have what I connect with spiritually and sometimes I have to search that out.

I tend to respond most to certain very cultivated landscapes, land that has been cultivated for centuries like in Europe and have an ordered chaos. But also the rock formations and cacti forms in the southwest U.S. and distant mountains with water in the middle ground in parts of the northwest. The corn fields with hay bales in the Hudson Valley are always with me and enter into my work. So there is a simultaneity, it is never really just one place I’m working from. I carry within me all the places that I’ve been most affected by. But give me a view with deep space, fertile fields with a fecundity of random forms and patterns and distant, echoing mountains and I am ready to get to work.

As soon as I location scout and find my view to return to repeatedly, I begin some small black and white drawings in either oil pastel or marker to figure out the space and forms within each view. So my approach and process really doesn’t change from place to place, just the view and my reaction to it differs. The energy of each place and my response to it will vary but my process is the same.

Lily Prince, Lago di Como, 40, Acrylic on canvas, 36”x36”, 2019, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: It seems to me that you are sometimes having an animated dialogue with van Gogh. How do you see your work in the context of landscape plein air painting in art history?

Lily Prince: Oh, I love the idea of an animated dialogue with Van Gogh, but if it occurs it is unconscious. I see myself connected to those artists who have gone before me who devoted their time and energy to schlepping their supplies outside and battling the elements, which can be extremely annoying, in order to capture some quality within nature that moved them and inspired them. There is an inherent connection of course, because we are all part of history, but it isn’t intentional.

I recently was plein air drawing for a month in Arles, France, where Van Gogh spent a year towards the very end of his life. I realized when drawing daily, high up from a tower at the Roman arena, that what drove van Gogh mad was the crazy wind, the Mistral. It almost made me a bit insane. So I felt connected to him on that level! Although I was where he was, it never occurred to me to refer to his work or take from him intentionally. But it was inspiring just to know that I was attempting to do something he also had felt was truly important. Some of his marks in his astoundingly beautiful ink drawings are somehow in me intuitively, but it was never a conscious comment on his work. I could name him as one of my personal favorites, along with Bonnard and Vuillard, but my work is definitely not intentionally influenced by them. I’m also sometimes asked if Burchfield is a direct influence, who oddly, I never was aware of until recently. And Hockney is another one, but I never knew he painted those exuberant landscapes until I saw his terrific shows in NY last year. When in art school, and even years afterwards, I wasn’t aware of women landscape painters, so had no role models there. Thankfully, so many amazing women artists of the past have come to be known now. I think when one joins a movement or tradition wholeheartedly, it is almost inherent that they have collective unconscious knowledge of that tradition and react to it and through it almost unwittingly. But I certainly feel honored whenever someone sees a connection to these masters.

Lily Prince, Lago di Como, 37, Acrylic on canvas, 36”x36”, 2019, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Can you share one plein air painting experience that you consider formative?

Lily Prince: Painting in the woods at the Bard College waterfall every day for 9 weeks during graduate school was truly formative. It was the first time I ever had that kind of continuity, of returning to the same place for 2 months and really exploring a place in depth. It was also the first time of working large on site, as well as having fantastic support from mentors.

But more recently, returning to Italy 7 years ago on an artist residency, was truly transformative. I had lived on and off for various periods in Italy beginning with my year at RISD in Rome. Returning there had so much sensory intensity for me. And it coincided with my return to plein air, which I had left for many years but always longed to return to. Drawing from the same spectacular view every day at the end of a small street in a tiny Tuscan town overlooking the Crete Senesi landscape was magical. My work is still inspired by those twisting, undulating hills, and the ordered chaos of the distant fields and silhouettes of cypress trees receding in space and dotting distant hills. I carry that with me.

Lily Prince, Lago di Como, 39, Acrylic on canvas, 36”x36”, 2019, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: What are you working on now?

Lily Prince: I am working on a project called “American Beauty that is attempting to remind us all about how much beauty still exists in our country. We really need that now. I began a series of small black-and-white and large color plein air drawings on a recent trip to the southwest and northwest. During these times of environmental and societal devastation, it can seem almost impossible to remember how much untouched land and inspiring landscape there is out there/here. It is astounding how much undisturbed nature abounds in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington, just to name only the places I travelled to this summer.

So I set out on this road trip in August to draw from places of particular interest to me. I tried to avoid drawing in direct sun during the most intense heat of the day, which often was over 100 degrees, but I wasn’t always able to avoid it. It was extremely intense. Sometimes I drew from the back of a rented mini-van, on the side of a highway if there happened to be a view I wanted, so at least I could sit and have the raised back provide some shade. It was hot as hell and definitely a labor of love.

In the past, I’d never made plein air drawings larger than 14” x 15”. That way I could manage standing up to draw while holding the pad in one hand and drawing with the other. And that size allowed me to easily fit the work in a carry- on suitcase. But on this western trip I worked on 30” x 35” 300 lb. paper and leaned on large cardboard sheets. Doing that really seemed a bit insane on the side of highways–it was a challenge for sure–but now I’m so glad I have those works to finish up back in my studio and use as composite inspiration for paintings I’m about to begin. All of that will be in a solo show at Thompson Giroux Gallery, spring 2020. I have a lot of work to do and am really excited about it.

Plein air drawing, Georgia’s Mountain, Abiquiu, New Mexico, photo of the artist by Stella Prince, 2019