A Jesuit painter reflects on the Ignatian roots of painting landscapes on location in what is known as "plein air" painting.
By Thomas Rochford SJ
In the last few years, my approach to painting has evolved as I switched from working in a studio to painting landscapes on location, what has become known as “plein air" painting. The term comes from the French painters who took advantage of a technological innovation, the paint tube, which freed them to paint outdoors.
My normal practice is to complete a painting in one session of at most three hours. You have to decide what interests you in a scene, and choose where and how to focus your efforts. Once you start painting, you work quickly, intensely. The paintings tend to be smaller than a studio work, as the sun’s movement across the sky changes shadows and limits how long you have to finish.
I was never aware of how fast the sun moved before I began painting outside. And that’s the point. This direct approach requires a sensitivity and awareness that are very close to my own spiritual heritage as a Jesuit.
Over the course of almost five centuries, many Jesuits have devoted themselves to the arts, including such painters as Andrea Pozzo and Giuseppe Castiglioni, musician Domenico Zipoli and a long line of theater directors. Ignatius himself counted Michelangelo as a personal friend who offered to design the church Ignatius wanted built in the heart of Rome, for free.
A deep involvement in the arts contradicts the stereotype of the Jesuit as a severe ascetic, but it flows directly from one of Ignatius’ seminal experiences -- his mystical prayer on the bank of the Cardoner River near Manresa, Spain. It happened one day when he was walking alone toward a small shrine outside town.
In his autobiography, Ignatius spoke of himself in the third person as he recalled: "One day he went to the Church of St. Paul, situated about a mile from Manresa. Near the road is a stream, on the bank of which he sat, and gazed at the deep waters flowing by. While seated there, the eyes of his soul were opened. He did not have any special vision, but his mind was enlightened on many subjects, spiritual and intellectual."
My friend, Fr. Joe Tetlow, explains the story this way: "He had an insight into how all contingent things -- the river flowing past, all creatures that come and go -- come from God's eternity, moment by moment. Eternity is not before and after time, but time is nested in eternity. So all things are coming from God, moment by moment."
Drops of water beaded on stems of grass revealed the touch of the Creator at work in that very moment. The water, the grass, the sky -- all revealed God's presence.
From that mystical prayer comes the Jesuit tradition of "finding God in all things," whether in a church, scientific research, legal advocacy, teaching, hospital ministry -- or art.
Being a plein air painter means spending hours standing in one spot gazing intensely at a scene, responding to the light, trying to understand the shapes and masses, the colors, the rhythm of the land. It means feeling the sun and wind, being part of the scene. If a plein air painting has snow, it means the artist was standing in the snow.
The process is as important as the final result. You don’t know what you will end up with when you choose a location. You move around seeing possibilities, sensing your own interest, searching for some connection that makes the hours worthwhile. Where a casual visitor might give a passing look at a landscape, the artist sees in depth. The first step is selecting what you want to paint and what you want to leave out. There are some obvious formal criteria such as design and an interesting mix of lights and darks, but the subject matter per se is not so important. I could capture that in seconds with a camera. Seeing is much slower.
Plein air painting has a prayerful aspect, not so much in the subject matter, which can seem mundane. Paying attention to the world is a way of feeling the presence of the one who created it. Like singing, painting is a way of praising the creator.
The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, (himself an amateur sketcher), wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
I sometimes think of plein air painting as the search for God’s fingerprints, but that metaphor misses the awareness of God’s ongoing, in-this-moment creative presence. The world is not inert, but vibrating with its creator's grandeur shining forth from even drops of water or blades of grass.The discipline of paying deliberate attention to something -- a tree, the water flowing around a rock, a hillside in shade -- leads to deeper understanding of what is in front and inside of you. In this, it resembles Ignatian prayer. The Jesuit mystic taught people to listen for the subtle movements of the Spirit, the whispering voice that spurs you on. Rather than an operatic, explicit religious subject matter, Ignatian spirituality encourages a prayerful response through being aware of God’s presence in the world.
The subtle beauty of a landscape means that I don’t need to paint great panoramas or travel to exotic locations. I can find God all around the city of St. Louis, in parks and empty lots, provided I know how to see. Dry grass in the wintertime along a frozen canal offers all I need for a wonder-filled painting.
Ultimately, the process should result in work that has a sense of spiritual depth, of peace, of appreciating the value of the ordinary. It does not need to shout out religious messages. I don’t do paintings about religious themes or about my prayer life. My painting and prayer life are part of the same current. Spirituality is a quality intrinsic to a piece that satisfies me.
Seeing is different than looking, and seeing really is a way
The Ignatian Spirituality Program of Denver offers Ignatian group retreats, individual spiritual direction, the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life, and trains spiritual directors and guides of the Spiritual Exercises.