“Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists.” Marcel Proust
Painting plein air may seem like a straight forward process. Once you get to the location, you set the easel, squeeze plenty of paints on the palette, get the brushes, and start to create on the canvas a resemblance of the landscape stretching ahead. Sky, earth, trees, bushes, grass, people, houses, fences – the elements offers themselves in abundance, eager to get their place on canvas. Many painters skillfully work their way to create a copy of the nature. Some even use a view finder attached to their easel at eye level, and paint exactly and precisely what they see through the cut-out. Their work is correct, but a hard-to-express dissatisfaction lingers as you see the result. There is nothing obvious to complain about: the proportions are right, the perspective convincing, the drawing holds together, the colors are realistically represented. It is almost irritating that such masterly skills were used for such a limited purpose - a mirror-like rendering of the nature.
And then you watch another artist at work. First she seems to idle, taking her time, more interested to wander around than to start the painting. She looks up at the sky for a long time, in all directions, and slowly sets up her easel. She is “feeling” the place, allows it to decant through her senses, and waits to see what holds her attention today, in this light. There may be many elements in the landscape, but only a few will make it through the artist’s process of selection, and will become part of the final composition. Finally, all the materials are ready. The painter is taking some time to stare at the blank canvas. She is painting first with her mind’s eye. Once a feeling of the place is identified, different compositions are virtually painted and discarded, different color schemes are virtually tested. Sometimes a couple of stamp-size drawing and oil studies are done rapidly, to condense and capture a passing light effect. Finally, the visible work starts. It seems easy, and it progresses rapidly. An hour or two later, it is time to stop, as the light is completely different, and the landscape is practically transformed. It is time to put away the canvas.
Later, in the studio, the artist takes another look at the plein air work. Some purists consider unacceptable to make any changes in the studio, but I favor any chance to improve the painting. The flavor of the vision lingers, and some touchup refines the piece. Here is an example: the plein air work, and its touchup version done in the studio.
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.