Sketched on the beach near Cockburnspath, Scotland, James Guthrie’s 1883 plein-air painting Hard at It gives us something of the very spirit of plein air painting.

The work has all the aspects of “open-air painting,” as noted by the Glasgow Museum, where Hard at It resides: “The direct, broad brushstrokes of the sky show exactly how the artist applied his color and the overall feel is of freshness and lightness.”

You can see that in these detail shots. However, it’s not like he painted the entire painting in minutes with fearless “bravura” brushstrokes. Instead, Guthrie appears to have laid in background colors and important details with a smaller brush first. He then filled in around them and layered on the big strokes with a gloriously loaded brush of just the right color/value (so, no fussing around – just using the flat side of a flat brush, laying on top those buttery brushstrokes of paint).

Guthrie’s Hard at It – detail (Photographs by artist Elaine Miller)

Guthrie’s Hard at It – detail

Guthrie, who as a plein-air painter was self-taught, was a central figure in the group of Scottish painters known as the “Glasgow Boys,” who were “radical” for Scotland for the time (1880s). When few British painters were bucking the Academy, the Glasgow Boys followed the French model – breaking with tradition, painting outdoors and directly in front of the subject, taking naturalistic, everyday scenes, objects, and working-class people as their subjects. Their work made a splash in England and as far away as Munich.

James Guthrie, Pastoral, 1885. National Galleries Scotland.

As a painter, Guthrie could be very spontaneous as well as calculating, as you can see in this closeup from the surface of Guthrie’s 1885 landscape, Pastoral.

Detail of brushwork in James Guthrie’s Pastoral

It’s clear that, unlike Hard at It, the painting “Pastoral” was done in the manner of a sketch, all at once, without planned-out layering or attention to fine detail. This fluid, all-over alla prima approach produces a painting with a lively, energetic surface charged with the very feeling of being out in nature. Both approaches, the details-and-then-big-brushstrokes method and the alla prima sketch-like approach, serve up wonderful paintings in Guthrie’s direct, self-assured, capable hands.

Portrait of the Artist as a “Madman” with a Plate


A self-portrait by a painter much admired by John Singer Sargent but today largely forgotten, has resurfaced after 50 years tucked away in a private collection.

It is a self-portrait painted by Italian artist Antonio Mancini during his so-called “period of madness,” which began in late 1870s after a return from Paris and lasted until 1883 when, he moved from Naples to Rome. The str
etch of years included a stint in a mental institution.

Though we hear much more about Sargent than Mancini these days, Mancini was one of the leading figures of nineteenth-century European painting. During his lifetime, he was admired and emulated by Italian and foreign artists and was widely acclaimed by critics and the general public. Sargent wrote of Mancini,“I have met in Italy the greatest living painter.”

Read more about Mancini and his “Self Portrait with Plate” at the website of Kilgore Gallery.

In the paint,