The Magic Show, oil on canvas, 10 x 10 in
As I parked the car facing west, I noticed another car stopped on the other side of the road, its driver admiring the spectacular sunrise. However, I was interested in the thin line of pink clouds hovering over the golden treetop. While I was getting the paints ready, out of nowhere, a warm yellow fluffy cloud appeared high in the sky. I decided on the spot to skip making the usual small sketch, and started to put the cloud up in the sky of the canvas. Then another yellowish cloud showed up. By the time I got them on the canvas, the thin line of rose clouds unrolled to a high field of blue-gray and pink clouds, covering most of the sky. The next hours passed in a blink. Soon, it was time to stop painting – overpainting is a sure way to kill the painting, especially in plein air. I got out of the car to take some photos toward east, and spent some time watching a singing bird high on a wire, like a musical note of a staff.
And then I turn to take a photo of the field of clouds I have just painted. Surprise: no one cloud in sight! The painting was done, the show was over, the clouds were gone. It felt like the nature put up a show just for the artist to paint. There is no need to look for inspiration – everything is worth painting, everything is worth celebrating.
Horsesebarn HIll: UConn Campus, oil, 10 x 10 in.
As I was listening to a Plein Air Podcast yesterday, the host Eric Rhoads asked his guest what he called “the hard question”:
“Imagine that you are on your dead bed. Everything you have done all your life is gone. There are no paintings left. You are surrounded by your loved ones. What would be three life lessons you would like to share with them?”
An intriguing question. As I reflected on this, my thoughts decanted to some clear tenets.
First, find out who you are. Nothing is more important than this.
Second, do your best in everything you are doing, without focusing on the results. In this way, you step away from the elusive trap of expecting a certain result from your action. The process itself will be rewarding, and your work will get better and better.
Third, serve others. Leave behind the torturing “I”, “me,” “mine,” and focus instead on how you could benefit others. This simple change in perspective is the spring of happiness.
As the Upanishads say, “Only in love and creative work is worth living a hundred years.”
Painting outside brings a great offer of subjects: patterns of clouds in the sky, sunrises and sunsets, swelling and dipping of the ground, trees, rocks, roads, animals, people. The variety is infinite. It might seem that it is enough to choose a view, and just copy it on the canvas. But painting is more than that: it requires a lot of planning. For example, setting the point of interest dead in the middle of the canvas or repeating identical elements make for a boring design. As my friend Elizabeth Austin says, being boring is the highest crime in creative work. After choosing and placing the point of interest, the rest of the elements are arranged to support the composition. Some trees might be added or removes, a path could be altered, a figure sketched in to give scale to the painting. Other things to consider are the unequal proportion of light and dark, the interesting pattern of interlocking shapes, the play of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals, neutral areas to rest the eye, gradations in large and small area, warm against cool, hard and soft edges, color interest, lively brushstrokes. The result is a very personal interpretation of the immediate scene. Painting, like any other creative process, requires unlimited learning, and brings continuous challenges and joy.
Take a quick walk on a crisp morning, wander by the ocean, or stop to admire the sunset. Breath in deeply, let the slight breeze roll over your skin, feel the sun on your face, and let the colors fill your being with light. When you open to these experiences, you feel closer to nature – and closer to yourself. A feeling of awe will bring awareness that you are part of something grander. You will feel a joy that only increases as you turn your attention to it. Painting plein air is only another way to translate all these experiences on canvas.
It might be contra-intuitive to paint plein air/representational in our days. There are no New York Times articles on plein air-realism-modern impressionism. Major galleries and museums ignore anything even vaguely representational, preferring to show abstract art and the more abstract the better. The preference for pure abstraction is a revealing element: Our society encourages us to live in our heads, in a universe of revolving thoughts of our own making, and it seems that it is harder to make up a blissful dream than a nightmare. The more we live in our heads, the farther we go from what we really are, the more we feel estrange from everything around us and from ourselves. There is no surprise that in this time most people struggle with anxiety and depression…
But this dichotomy between realistic/representational and abstract is false. In art, a good representational painting is built on a strong foundation of abstract shapes and colors. An abstract painting needs elements of realism, be that in shape or color, to connect with the viewer. While it takes skill and effort to create any artwork, a representational painting will have more hooks to bring the viewers in, to engage, and to inspire them. If you want to see this for yourself, go this weekend to a gallery and museum, find a good representational painting, and let the experience of joy wash over you.