For more than 20 years, Saim Caglayan has been an evangelist for reviving the plein-air tradition. The Sankofa Review contributor Jennifer King discovers why painting from life is so important to this spirited artist.
JK: Saim, you’re known not only for your own plein-air painting, but for your dedication to promoting the plein-air tradition. You founded the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association in 1996, and you’ve since been instrumental in founding two similar organizations in Hawaii. What inspired you to help build these organizations, and how do you think other artists benefit from being involved in these types of organizations?
SC: Yes, recently someone called me the “Johnny Appleseed of Plein Air”. Necessity is the mother of invention, hence I saw a need for the organizations that I founded and helped start. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I lived in Southern California, and I was painting outdoors, just like a lot of artists who went there in the early 20th century for the beauty of the land. But by the late 20th century, most artists had moved away from that—the plein-air movement was pretty much shunned. People thought it had all been done before, and it was a dying art. But I always loved art, and when I saw how influential those early California painters were, I wanted to tune into that energy and start a revival of plein-air painting. Some of my friends were members of the California Art Club, and we would go out to Laguna for meetings and to paint. It seemed to me that it would be a good place to start. The timing was right, and I was motivated to found LPAPA. So, my inspiration came from the love of painting outdoors and the desire to share that experience with like-minded people. Since moving to Hawaii, I’ve helped found two other plein-air groups and other invitational plein-air events since I’d already worked out the road map for doing it.
Artists and communities benefit tremendously from groups like LPAPA. Members are given support through our monthly mentoring programs and lectures, and opportunities to exhibit and sell their work and advertise their workshops. These groups create camaraderie and contribute in many ways to the community.
JK: So for you personally, what is it about painting landscapes outdoors from life that you find so inspiring?
Tunnels Clouds, 2015
SC: I like painting from life whether it’s landscape, figure, or still life because direct observance reveals so much more than a photograph can. In painting from life, you paint the forms as if you’re sculpting the image that you’re observing. When you paint from photos you’re dealing with shapes instead of form, and you can only imagine how the subject would look in a three-dimensional space. I like the direct approach as it is in real time, which is all encompassing.
JK: I’ve heard plein-air artists disagree about whether a painting can be called a plein air work if the artist does any work on it back in the studio. What are your thoughts? Do you work exclusively outdoors, or do you ever finish your paintings back in the studio?
SC: I usually finish a painting outdoors, but if I can improve my painting later in the studio, that’s great. Ultimately it is the end result that counts.
JK: Do you ever use your plein-air paintings as the inspiration for studio paintings? How does that work?
SC: I rarely paint a plein-air work with the idea of enlarging it in the studio. When a painting turns out exceptionally well, then I will enlarge it. If it appears bigger than life in its small size, then I know it will translate well in a larger scale. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but that goes with the territory.
JK: What do you mean by “appearing bigger than life”?
SC: A lot of plein-air paintings look just perfect at a small size in terms of design and composition. But sometimes you create one that just fills your soul and mind. It looks expansive. That’s when I know that the subject wants to be painted large. But every now and then, I go large, and then I say, “oops.” It doesn’t make it for one reason or another.
JK: I know that you love to travel to paint, and you even teach workshops in different locations. How do you choose where you’ll go, and how does being in a new environment influence you?
SC: I love to paint, so I don’t really need to go anywhere to get inspired. There is plenty in my garden for me to paint for the rest of my life. But I love traveling, too, so I continue painting no matter where I am.
JK: And how do you choose your subjects? What qualities interest and inspire you?
SC: I am inspired by light and the interplay of light with its surroundings. I try to paint the light and the absence of it. Different colors emit different light frequencies, which have a different effect on everyone’s vision and emotions. I think that is the determining factor of one’s palette, and there is also an innate sense of beauty we all have. When that sense is matched with an outside vista, thing, or person, then inspiration occurs.
JK: After living in Southern California for many years, you’ve settled in Hawaii—both very beautiful places to paint. How has that affected your work?
SC: The light is quite different in these two locations. California is known as the Golden State, which really refers to the light of California, the golden light of California. This quality of light is created when the moisture rising from the great Pacific Ocean meets the warm land masses. It is that wonderful golden atmosphere that the early California painters were attracted to and captured in paint. It has a spiritual dimension to it. On the other hand, the Hawaiian Islands are the most remote location from any land mass in the world, little jewels in the middle of the Pacific. Moisture forms not in the atmosphere but above the islands as clouds. I think for the above reasons my paintings of the islands have more clarity of color and light.
JK: Speaking of clarity of color, I love your color palette – it’s very fresh and clean. Could you describe your approach to color?
Laguna Light, 2015
SC: Thank you, Jennifer. My palette consists of a warm and a cool of the primary colors and depending on the subject, I may bring in a few of what I call “guest colors” until the painting is finished. I try to limit the use of white and the mixing of color too much so that there is more intensity and purity.
JK: I use the same palette, and I use guest colors, too! One of my favorites is Quinacridone Magenta. What are yours?
SC: Sometimes I bring in earth tones, such as Burnt Umber and Raw Sienna or Indian Red, as mixers with the primaries. But I also like Turquoise Blue and Permanent Green – really intense tones that I can mix with primaries. Especially here in the tropics, I encounter those quite a bit. It’s eye candy. But they don’t reside full time on the palette.
JK: I also love your brushwork, which is direct and animated. Tell me about the importance of brushwork.
SC: Brushwork is like an artist’s own fingerprints and character—it tells so much about an artist. Of course, technically, it can be used to create perspective and depth and to accent or quieten certain areas in the painting.
JK: That’s interesting that you should mention that. I think a lot of artists tend to focus on using color and value contrast, and maybe don’t think as much about textural contrast.
SC: Yes, a lot of beginning painters or even established artists don’t use texture and mass variations to draw attention or achieve certain effects. Look at the Masters – the light areas are very heavy and come forward, look solid, and have a sculptural form, whereas the dark areas are almost like washes. And if you’re not taking advantage of this, why use oils?
JK: Since you just brought up the Masters, who are some of your heroes in art history—artists from the past you have studied?
SC: Oh, Edgar Degas, Gustav Klimt, Paul Gauguin, Joaquin Sorolla, Nicholai Fechin, Ilya Repin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Maynard Dixon, Mary Cassatt, Artemisia Gentileschi, George Bellows, Winslow Homer, Antoine Cecile Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot, Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Mariano Fortuni, Camille Claudel, and the list goes on!
JK: Okay, but if you had to choose just one favorite work of art from history, what would you choose and why?
SC: It would be Joaquin Sorolla’s “La bata rosa”. This painting moves me emotionally for it communicates friendship, intimacy, and warmth, both psychologically and physically. It communicates interior and exterior space with a sense of light that is almost spiritual. There is a great sense of atmosphere and delicate movement of air with the figures in such tight space. A strong composition achieved by juxtaposing of geometric and organic shapes that leads the eye beautifully through effortless brushstrokes. The woman’s stance in contrapposto is like a Greek statue that takes me centuries back in time. There is a timeless mystery about this painting that brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it at Sorolla’s Studio in Madrid.
JK: I know that you studied art in college, so you must have known from an early age that you wanted to be an artist. How did you know that?
SC: I recall in elementary school and middle school always being praised by my teachers for my drawings and paintings. In college after three years of engineering studies, I changed my major to sculpture, which opened the flood gates of creativity for me. It has been a wild ride since then. The sense of knowing that art was my destiny slowly evolved as I took different art classes.
JK: I also know that you studied sculpting as well as painting, and you’ve continued to sculpt as well as paint. How has your work in three dimensions influenced your two-dimensional painting? How are they similar, and how are they different?
SC: Sculpture was my main focus academically, and I taught life modeling and stone carving in different colleges for 25 years. Sculpture has been a definite influence in my paintings. I tend to carve out forms with paint as if I’m sculpting, which creates a lot of variation in texture. “Painting” covers a myriad of techniques and styles from simple, minimalist abstractions to classical and complex expressionistic works, but in the end it resides in a two-dimensional world. Painting at times emphasizes the two dimensions, and at times can bring about the illusion of three-dimensional space. Sculpture is solid, tactile and real. It is grounded in reality, whereas painting can be ethereal, more immediate in evoking a feeling. Sculpture keeps on giving with infinite points that it can be viewed from.
JK: You’ve been a professional artist and teacher for many years, and as you said, it’s been a wild ride. What goals have you set for yourself to continue growing as an artist?
SC: I am aware of my shortcomings as a painter and sculptor, and I work on improving my skills at every opportunity. Beyond that, with what skills I have at this moment in time, I will always attempt to create images that reflect the sublime and beautiful aspects of this grand mystery that is life.
JK: That’s beautiful. Is that what you’d say is important to you in your work? Do you have a message or philosophy that you follow?
SC: Art, for me is a transcendent experience—it is communing with creation. I have found that after nearly half a century of studying, teaching, making and selling art, the essence of art resides beneath the surface of what is readily perceived. In order to get to the core of where the treasures lie, we must be ever vigilant in seeking excellence in all areas of our lives—I mean both within our work and within ourselves—with hard work, patience, and perseverance. We must strive to get to the essence of things, beyond this fast-paced, quick way of living. We must go to that parallel universe where we can perceive that deeper matter. Only then will we experience the reward, which brings contentment and joy.
Click on the following link for an opportunity to see Saim’s beautiful paintings in life,
in a group exhibition alongside with Fabiola Sorolla
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About Saim Caglayan
In the late 1960s, Saim Caglayan came to the United States from Instanbul, Turkey, to study architecture, but he ended up earning a degree in Sculpture from California State University at Fullerton and pursued graduate courses there and at the Art Institute of Southern California. He has since been a professional artist—working as both a painter and a sculptor—as well as a teacher of both art forms.
In 1996, Saim founded the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association. After relocating to Hawaii, he and Pierre Bouret founded the Kauai Outdoor Painters Association in 2003. In 2005, he and Ronaldo Macedo founded ISLANDERS, a group of painters representing the Hawaiian Islands. And in 2007, he worked with Katalina Prince to start the Borrego Springs Plein Air Invitational.
His work can be found in numerous private and public collections, and he has participated in many solo and group exhibitions around the world. In 2016, he will be part of a two-person exhibition in Southern California, and he will be teaching workshops in California and Mexico. To learn more about this artist, visit his website at www.saimcaglayan.com.
About Jennifer King
Never one to pass up a great art museum or a great latte, Jennifer King is an artist, arts writer, and marketing specialist from Cincinnati, Ohio. She offers art marketing services, coaching, and consultations for artists through her website, www.connectartistmarketing.com. Starting at the end of January, she will also be offering two-day workshops on developing marketing plans for artists. Learn more at http://connectartistmarketing.com/