Painting what you know

“View toward the Bay,” 9×12, pastel on paper. Summer 2015. The shoreline of Lake Huron near Au Gres, Michigan. Currently available at the Scarab Club.

One of the old axioms about writing is that you should always write about what you know. As a marketing writer by day, I’ve found it definitely helps. Recently, though, I’m realizing this philosophy applies to painting as well.

This spring, I read a book by celebrated watercolorist Mary Whyte about how to paint. Not about technique, but how to choose what to paint. And then, how to paint it, from a purely personal point of view. The book has continued to infiltrate my psyche ever since, mostly because the timing is now right. The best advice in the world is meaningless until you’re ready for it. Until recently, I was preoccupied with my disobedient brushes and contentious canvases, mocking me with my amateur abilities. But with a lot of work, I steadily improved.  And now, I’m all ears. And eyes.

Whyte’s premise is that you don’t just paint what you see. Instead, you paint what you see uniquely and also what you know. Not the bird in the tree, but that bird and its song. Not the lake with the purple haze, but the serenity, too. Not the model, but her anxiety or his playfulness. And now that I’ve gotten to be more skillful, I can see that my best paintings are always like that. Something about them makes me feel emotional. When I’m painting a portrait, there will often be a single moment when I’m startled to notice that the person’s essence has suddenly come together on the canvas.

“Disappearing Towels,” 11×9, pastel on paper. Summer 2015.  The shoreline of Lake Huron, near Au Gres, MI. Currently available at the Scarab Club.

Paintings that spark emotion are also inevitably the paintings that sell, and when they do, I always feel a twinge of regret within the happiness of a sale. It’s like a piece of me is for sale, too, one that I’ll never get back. It’s a little disconcerting when you allow someone to see straight into your heart.

These paintings were done plein air at my favorite place on earth:  my grandmother’s cabin on Lake Huron. The first painting was done entirely plein air, but the second had to be finished in the studio, since the kids started grabbing the towels off the fence, one by one, while I was painting.

With these, I am painting endless afternoons jumping in the waves, the bad sunburns I got as a teenager, looking for sea glass with my little niece, my mom making up fake Scrabble words, and my grandmother emerging from the lake in her bathing cap after her 6 am swim. I’m painting memories of rocks on the water’s edge and a big sand bar further out. I’m painting lazy afternoons of antiquing in Oscoda, ice cream cones in Au Gres, and trashy novels and Margaritas on lawn chairs. I’m painting the vigor that comes from sleeping soundly to the eternal beat of the waves on the shore.

Fittingly, we get terrible cell reception at the cabin. Because the cabin is me, unplugged.

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