“Let the beauty we love be what we do.” Rumi
She has long flowing hair and a dark coat. She walks straight to my easel: “How could you paint the same thing for an entire year?” The answer is simple: Nothing really repeats itself. Working every day in the same place opens the possibility of nuances, variation, experimentation with the impact of different compositions and color schemes, the effect of allowing different elements to take central stage in the painting. There is no need to look for inspiration as there is always more to be done. There is only one restriction set by the limited number of hours in a day.
Some general rules about the Horsebarn Hill project are meant to keep the subject interesting, while offering recurring themes. Every month there is at least a sunrise, a sunset, a landscape with the moon, a nocturne, various interpretations of the Jacobson Barn, views of the farm, tree portraits, animals, a floral seen, people engaged in activities. The change in light along each day, the change of light with the weather and from season to season constantly sets the stage for new potential paintings. As the paint is pushed around the canvas, the imagination is fired. The final work is a blend of what is seen and how is seen
When the ideas get stale, a long walk opens new perspectives and new subjects. This is useful especially during the very cold days of winter, when I paint sitting in the car. From time to time, besides dealing with the freezing weather, I also have to deal with other vehicles that come to park right in front of me and obscure the view. When I was painting the tiny gas station by the main barn, a truck parked in front of it. The driver got out, and spent the next half an hour in conversation with a friend, before taking off again - and I finished my painting. Another time I started to paint an old sport car parked on Horsebarn Hill, when the owner returned suddenly and took off with my subject. As the sketch was still at the very beginning, I scraped the paint and looked for something else to paint. And then there was the early morning when a van parked inches from my car and completely blocked the view of the horses I was painting. Quickly, I put down my brushes, took a business card, and went to the driver to see if she would change parking places with me. “Oh, I have bought one of your paintings. It is in my living room.” She graciously moved her car and I finished my painting.
Like in many other endeavors, persistence pays off. Nothing works all the time, and any formula is interesting only for a short time. Taking a new approach, making rules and then breaking them keep the eye fresh and the painting challenging and interesting.
“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.”