What Art Movement are We In Today? An interview with B. Eric Rhoads.

by Tina Manzer

It’s a good question. A few years ago, Canadian artist Elizabeth Reoch’s asked it; wondering how society was connecting to art at the moment, and if there were new movements brewing that she would eventually want to join.
A lively online discussion ensued.

It’s a question that we should pose more often, since art is evolving into new movements all the time; impacted by technology, globalization, architectural styles, fashion, and pop culture, to name just a few influences. Art movements are hot topics that affect so many of us, not the least of whom are the folks who create art and the folks who sell them their supplies.

If you are like Elizabeth and wonder what’s next, you might be interested in what Eric Rhoads, chairman of Streamline Publishing, has to say. His family business prints Fine Art Connoisseur and PleinAir magazines, and publishes several weekly enewsletters including Fine Art Today, Plein Air Today, Realism Today, and American Watercolor. He talked to us recently about two art movements that are expanding in measurable numbers: academic realism and (no surprise here) plein air.

AMR: How do you take the pulse of an art movement like plein air?

BER: When I started PleinAir magazine, I thought there was a movement, but it turned out to be a very small number of people overall. At the time, there were probably a couple-hundred plein air painters and only about five events.

Today we estimate there are 250,000 plein air painters, based on an easel study we did of manufacturers who sell tripod-based easels, and probably 50,000 highly active people – and this does not include easels sold in retail locations. Also, there are about 300 citywide plein air events around the country that bring artists in and have shows. We’re learning many buyers at those shows become painters.

We have had a million or more downloads for the plein air podcast, and PleinAir magazine is the number-one-selling magazine in the art/photography category at Barnes & Noble nationwide.

Historian Jean Stern, executive director of The Irvine Museum Collection at UC Irvine, says it is the largest movement in the history of art in terms of number of people participating.

How can stores that sell art materials meet the needs of these painters?

The first answer is to understand that this exists and it’s a pretty big movement. Putting together store displays with what you need to paint outdoors, packs of books, paints, panels, easels, etc. will help. Bringing painters in to do seminars or lessons would be helpful.

Education is always powerful. Lots of people don’t know the word “plein air,” so we tend to start by simply explaining that it’s painting outdoors, much like Monet and the impressionists. Putting PleinAir magazine in stores might make sense for some. Stocking books or videos on plein air painting is also helpful.

Who are these artists? What are the demographics?

They’re fairly wide, though there seems to be a bubble on both ends. The biggest group appears to be those who want something more from life than their careers, who often take up painting before retiring and then go full-force once retired.

Then, of course, there are a lot of young people, probably ages 25 to 45, taking it up. As I watch Instagram, I see thousands in this category. Of course there are many in the middle as well, but the growth seems to be on both ends. Boomers have the time, and often have ample spending capability.

Are there some artists who are better suited to plein air than others, maybe those who have a looser style, who work fast, or who are good drawers?

I don’t think so. Plein air painting has a wide range from loose and impressionistic to tight and classic. For instance, Ken Salaz, Rick Wilson or Eric Koppel paint like the original Hudson River School painters with a tight, somewhat dark, style. There is no right or wrong, it’s about expressing your voice, your color and feel.

To what do you attribute its growth?

It’s hard to pin down to one thing, though I think that the answer comes from the sense of community; much of which we’ve worked hard to create. There is a convention, many painters’ events that we create, and there are many other events – more workshops and more educational videos.

Lifestyle is the key. People love the plein air lifestyle because they get to be creative, get to be outdoors in nature, can travel, can paint with friends (it’s very social) and it’s challenging, yet something you can do your whole life even into your 100s. Because of the events, there are more collectors than ever, more of them taking up painting themselves, and more artists able to make a living.

The thing most studio artists discover is that plein air helps them see light, color, and form better, because photos cannot compete with what you see in nature. Getting outside makes a studio painter a better painter because it feels more real.

Academic realism – how can you tell that it’s becoming a movement?

Andy Warhol predicted this movement back in the 1970s, and said that if a small group of 100 artists start painting in this way, it will eventually become the big art movement in America.

We tend to think of abstract as modern painting, yet it’s now more than 100 years old, and most kids grew up in homes where their parents and grandparents had abstract on their walls. Today’s young people want new and cutting edge – they always have – and the avant-garde today is realism painting. It’s shunned by the abstract and modern art society, which is exactly why abstract and modern became so cool – it was shunned by society.

It’s the old story of kids not wanting to do what their parents do, and it’s about the return to analog, something that is well crafted and handmade, requiring true skill. All of that appeals very much to today’s youth.

But most colleges are out of touch and not teaching life drawing and classical painting; most professors don’t know how and have no interest. The result is that we’ve seen more than 100 ateliers spring up since we founded Fine Art Connoisseur magazine 15 years ago. When I first started, there were about five places in the world to learn. Now these schools are overflowing with 20-year-olds who want to paint like this.

They’re millennials?

I’d say that most of them are ages 20 to 45, with some leaders in their 50s and 60s. There is a bubble of boomers who are also interested in learning. But the lion’s share of this market is young people.

What are some of the movement’s characteristics?

Subject matter is typically portrait and figure, but also still life, and they are painting using the techniques of the 19-century Salon or the old masters. Thus, old techniques of layering, underpainting, and glazing are often employed. Subjects are often classical in form, yet there are some brilliant artists like Casey Baugh who add an edge to it. Artists to look into are Jacob Collins, Daniel Graves, and John Michael Angel, who have been leaders in the movement.

We saw such strong interest that we started a conference called The Figurative Art Convention & Expo (FACE), which is made up of museum-quality artists and those who strive to be. It’s a place people can go to learn these techniques and share community.

What materials are they using?

The range is wide depending on who they are following for guidance. For example, Eric Johnson, teaches Rembrandt techniques and is hand grinding pigments with a limited four- or six-color palette, including stack lead white. Others, like students at Philadelphia’s Studio Incamminati, are using a wide palette of multiple colors and multiple whites for different purposes. Most are using quality paints, lots of mediums and glazes, often copper panels and traditional canvas. Quality materials matter because these are often paintings that take months to create.

What is the appeal of academic realism for the person creating it? For the people collecting it?

The appeal is its measurable quality. You can tell if a drawing is off, if the arm is too long or the body is out of proportion. The appeal is that it’s exact, developing highly advanced painting and drawing skills, perfect skin tones and tight appearing paintings (though there is a sector also doing loose, more impressionistic works).

What’s your advice for art materials retailers?

Keep visitors informed of trends, highlight artists and techniques, and carry the depth of materials these artists have interest in – which may include, in some cases, raw pigment, mullers, oils, drying oils, lead whites, etc. There seems to be interest in high quality materials that are beyond student grade.

As a serial entrepreneur, Eric has launched a variety of companies and media brands, and created startups and built businesses for the last 30-or-so years. Streamline Media, which he founded in 1986, produces magazines, digital media, information products and video in the art industry, as well as in the radio broadcasting industry. Eric is also portrait and landscape artist whose work is represented by galleries in Napa Valley, Santa Fe, and his hometown in Indiana.

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