Tuesday, March 12, 2024

'Working directly from Nature is the best way'

Deering Memorial Library, Northwestern University

     The Fine Arts Building has to be on anybody's short list of favorite downtown buildings, with its elevator operators — the last in the city, soon to be phased out — its sun-filled fourth floor atrium and general air of seedy artistic casualness, home to violin makers and  mouthpiece fitters, shoestring opera theaters and puppet troupes. 
     Yes, in recent years, there is a pang for the loss of the Artist's Cafe —I'm tempted to decry the singular possessive, but what artist worth his or her salt isn't pretty singular in nature? It was a splendid burger, pie and coffee diner that time forgot, with patrons including Johnny Carson and Mick Jagger, the perfect place to while away an hour waiting for a concert to start. Closed five years now.
     I was there recently visiting a brass instrument showroom on the second floor, and returned last Friday to kill  few minutes before the ACLU Luncheon at the Hilton down the block by browsing the lovely bookstore on the second floor.
    My attention was drawn by an exhibit of paintings there by Don Yang. The paintings were created en plein air, or "in the open air" meaning it wasn't done in a studio, but painted on an easel outside, in front of the scene being depicted. 
     I asked Yang about it — what does painting in the outdoors bring that can't be found painting, say, off a photograph? 
      "Nothing like painting and drawing the real thing on location seeing/feeling the true color and atmosphere," he replied. "What we see in photograph or screen shot is not ‘real’ in the sense of true color. Those images are heavily dependent upon the printer and paper (photo) or how computer/tablet screen is calibrated. Never same as what I ‘feel' with my eyes. Even the gloomiest day on location offers more vibrant colors and sense of presence than a photo reference.
     "Though I do enjoy my studio work, and often have to work off of photo references, working directly from Nature is the best way to learn and experience the true light and color.
Different season, different day, different weather, and my different mood of the day yields different paintings.
     "I didn’t understand how Monet felt he could ‘get away with’ painting the same haystack and consider them all different paintings until I started taking my own painting gears outdoors.
     "To me, plein air painting is just as much of an experience as it is a result."
     Born in South Korea, Yang came to the United States as a teenager. After a stint in the Army, he settled in Chicago, painting and teaching. He's chairperson of the fine arts department of the American Academy of Art College, a small, for-profit school teaching art and design.
     I like the dappled light in the paintings, the rich natural colors, and the way he frames his images. Yang often paints familiar Chicago landmarks, but from unexpected angles. Another thing that struck me about the painting was how affordable they are — $500, $800. Not cheap, but not an unimaginable fortune either. They struck me as a good special event gift for someone, and yes, he does commissions, if there is a certain home or part of the city that you or a loved one has particular appreciation for.
     You can see dozens more examples of his work on his website, or reach Don Yang at donyangart@gmail.com.
Fourth Presbyterian Church Courtyard


  1. The Wilmette and Evanston locations of his landscapes were immediately recognizable to this former Evanstonian. His name rings a bell. I think I might have even seen him at work on location, years ago, painting on an easel in Gillson Park, which has always been a favorite spot for painters. On pleasant summer and fall days, you can easel-y find one there. My first wife's grandmother was distantly related to the Gillsons who gave the park its name.

    His work is not only easy on the eyes, but on the pocketbook as well. Not exactly inespensive, but surprisingly affordable. His trees and buildings remind me of Evanston's Walter Burt Adams (1903-1990), a curmudgeonly and almost Hopperesque open-air painter of local landscapes for more than forty years (1931-1977). And yes, I could see even myself, in different circumstances, commissioning Mr. Yang to paint a wedding portrait, or my old block off Main Street, or even a beloved cat. Alas, the

    1. Alas, the orange kitty is no more, and I'm no longer living in Chicago...

  2. The top one is obviously Robie House in Hyde Park. The others I'm not sure of.

  3. The Fine Arts Building is a must go when we visit from West Central IL for a day or so. Oh that elevator! I took a friend who had never been last fall and we took the elevator to the top and walked down exploring each floor. At the little "museum" display, Bill Lee, who works on stringed instruments came out to point out a few items (the original Art Institute was on the corner north of Fine Arts and is attached via a slim building inbetween-maybe housing the Diner (I so hope they restore that-I went once-such a classic. We had a great conversation as he knew a few musicians from WIU over the years. You can register to attend their "Second Friday" event where you can actually meet tenants and tour their spaces.

  4. I share your affection for the Fine Arts building, but not for the Artist’s Café, which I don’t miss a bit. Every time I ate there, occasionally before a performance at the Auditorium Theater, I had to ask myself, “Why am I doing this again?” The food was average, the service was surly and slow, and they resolutely only accepted American Express cards in lieu of cash. I find the Dunkin Donuts next door much more satisfactory.

  5. Neil, you and your followers have hit upon many pieces of my own history. I exhibited at the Fine Arts Building Gallery for many years, knew the owner of the Artist's Cafe, photographed and designed brochures and signage for the past building owner, and knew Tommy the elevator operator who is memorialized on the plaque in the hallway and had a Notre Dame University museum in the basement. But all that aside, it is your reference to plein air painting that drew my attention today. You once said that Ed Paschke allowed you into his advanced drawing class. I wish you had also studied art history (and maybe you did). Plein air started over 200 years ago when Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot won the Priz de Rome at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and while in Italy began painting direct from the landscape. That was enabled by the fact that oil paint was for the first time available in tubes, which allowed him to paint on-the-spot rather than being isolated in his studio. That was just one of the many, many things that over the course of the next 50 years resulted in Impressionism. What Mr. Yang is doing is a marvelous extension of that tradition. But it is a systematic approach to landscape that is antiquated and has many followers who excel at such imitation. Yes, his paintings are beautiful. Yes, they capture the light and color of the moment. Yes, they are able to reproduce the essence of the place and moment. However, they do not rise to the level of personal expression that distinguishes artistic creativity and individuality. They are merely imitations of the past. And there is an audience for that. As an artist, I'm just trying to put that in perspective.


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