I’ve been wanting to challenge myself for a while, so this month, I decided to take the plunge. I signed up for the Strada Easel 30-Day Challenge, which has an added twist in that you must draw or paint from life each day (not from photos or imagination). Well, it’s been hard, but here’s what I did. It should be noted that many of these are not finished, nor ideal. The point of the challenge is to discipline yourself to paint every day. Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if you think you don’t have the time, because you can almost always find time. I probably made it a little harder on myself than it had to be, by painting more complex subjects every day. I also painted more paintings than are show here, lol. What can I say, I’m a glutton for punishment! What are you doing to challenge yourself artistically?
Truth be told, most every plein air painting I’ve ever done has been a struggle. Even though I spend a lot of time painting figures, I do feel like plein air is worth doing. For realist painters, plein air (painting “live,” directly from observing nature, rather than in a studio) is great for learning composition and also for learning how to carefully observe, because the brain does play tricks on us. Side benefit? Painting plein air means you get to hang out in the fresh air on a sunny day. But it’s hard. Damn hard. Usually my internal mental dialogue has gone something like this:
What a beautiful day!
Should I paint this? Or this? Is there shade?
Is there a bathroom nearby?
Make a decision; you’ve got to paint something.
Wish I could set up faster.
Horizontal, vertical or square?
Forgot to get the paper towels out.
What am I looking at? Am I going to be able to draw this?
Forgot to get my glasses out.
No room for my glasses on my setup. Top of the head, it is.
Maybe I need the umbrella after all.
Hope the umbrella doesn’t tip over.
What am I looking at?
How am I going to simplify that?
What color is that? Why can’t I mix that green?
This painting sucks.
Why are other people so good at this? Will I ever get good at this? Why am I doing this to myself?
Oooo, the light just got brighter. So pretty. Let’s capture that.
The light changed. Keep going or quit?
Oh, man, people are approaching. I hope they don’t stop. This painting sucks right now.
Damn, they stopped.
They must be so disappointed. I’m so embarrassed.
Will I ever get good at this?
Keep going. Light is back. Besides, you’re here already.
How come I can’t mix that color? Why is paint so inadequate for light?
Is the shadow as blue as I am seeing?
I’m sweating. I need another shower.
My canvas is in full light. Gonna affect the color.
Move the umbrella. Again.
Warm or cool?
Is that a bee?????
Contemplate if I can Epipen myself. If not, wonder how long it will be before anybody finds me.
Fresh look at painting. How is it possible for that tree to have too much detail and, at the same time, too little? Amazing.
Am I getting sunburned?
Out with the crazy lady flap hat. Protects my neck and face, but looks batty.
What am I looking at? What color is that? How do I separate the greens?
Titanium or flake white?
Flake white replacement.
Shoo mosquito. Get bit anyway.
The Liquin is getting sticky.
That green. Cad yellow and cobalt? Viridian and cad red? Why can’t I mix the right grey? Is that shadow really that blue?
Too much detail. Scrape.
Better. But still awful.
Maybe not totally awful. I like some things about it.
Why is everybody else so good at this? I feel like such a failure.
Why don’t the other painters I know struggle with this?
Okay, most do.
My feet hurt.
Values. Are they right?
Of course not. Fix.
I feel like someone is watching again. Should I turn around?
No, sir, painting is not relaxing.
Hope that dog is friendly.
Wait. The couple who’ve decided to make out and are blocking my view, will hopefully move. I was here first.
Stand back; assess.
Light is going.
Panicked last few strokes to capture the light. Am I ruining it?
Light is gone.
Sigh. Time to pack up.
Better scrape the palette and clean the brushes now. I won’t feel like it later.
I hate this painting. Why do I do this to myself?
Should I scrape it out now?
Wait. Sometimes I change my mind later.
I’m sweating. I do not look attractive right now. I hope I don’t run into anybody I know.
It’s a beautiful day.
Carefully stow wet painting.
Where’s the bathroom?
NEXT MORNING …
Guess I should look at yesterday’s painting to see if I can learn anything.
25% OF THE TIME:
It’s so bad. I suck.
49% OF THE TIME:
Hmmm. It’s not as bad as I thought. Put aside until I decide if it’s salvageable.
20% OF THE TIME:
Huh. This might actually be good with a few tweaks. Who knew?
5% OF THE TIME:
Shocked. Good as-is. Why do I beat myself up so much?
1% OF THE TIME:
When I finish, I think it’s decent.
What’s your process?
Fellow painters, weigh in. Does this sound familiar, or is your plein air experience different?
Who knows why some people inspire us to paint well and others don’t? The longer I paint, the more I suspect that it is a combination of a great pose and also my own personal level of intrigue with the model. I painted two paintings on this day. In the morning, I didn’t paint well at all, but in the afternoon … like a happy pill, the antidote appeared. One of my all-time favorite models was booked for the afternoon session. I find her super intelligent; a great combination of smart, thoughtful and nice. Big plus? She holds really still. And then this painting happened without much struggle. Pleased with it overall, but might do a couple tweaks; haven’t decided yet. Alas, no camera ever makes a painting look nearly as good as it does in real life, and Photoshop is woefully inadequate for helping. The contrast is always too much, no matter how you fiddle with it. The human eye is so much better than a camera. 18×14, oil on canvas. Can’t wait until she comes back!
Trying to share the journey as honestly as possible. That includes paintings that are not always the best I can do. Yesterday, we had two models who moved a lot. I don’t quite have the skill level to compensate for that. Yet. Something to work on. Still, I think the costumed one (14×11) is a decent start and I rather like the nude (12×9). Both oil on linen.
It’s important to paint a lot. Some studies I throw in a drawer forever; others I finish later. Working at it is what matters most, not the result. I will likely finish these, though the nude will be hard since there’s no reference photo. There rarely is for nudes. Most models, understandably, do not allow photos for nude sessions. Great model today; it makes all the difference. I do not envision taking these paintings much tighter; I rather like them the way they are.
Been a little lax in recent months on posting paintings. Here’s a few recent ones I’ve liked. Not sure I have much insight, other than I feel like I’m breaking into a new level. Special thanks to Professor Erin Scott, who’s helped me to think better and triple-dog-dared me on occasion.
Three years ago, I started painting after a couple months of messing around with colored pencils. I was stuck and needed some guidance. So I took my first classes. Truth be told, the instructors were rather surprised at how well I did, considering I had zero painting experience and had not drawn at all since high school. I remember the great Roumen Boudev, my instructor, asking me, “which one of these is medium?” and replying, “What’s medium?”
I was a total rube. Despite that, I plugged along and did some passable portraits. “You have a natural gift,” people would tell me. At the time, I considered that to be a huge compliment.
A different perspective on painting
Flash forward three years. Lately I’d been finding those words, always said with good intentions, to rankle. I wasn’t sure why. But one day, my life drawing instructor pulled me aside to discuss my work and my grade. And he said something that pinpointed my annoyance for me. After talking about his reaction to my work, he said, “You are an extremely hard-working and motivated artist.”
I was rather taken aback. I honestly hadn’t thought about myself that way. Sure, I knew I’d worked hard, doing hundreds of paintings in the past three years. But I didn’t really appreciate how hard I’d worked or that it was noticeable. I thought most painters worked as hard as I do. But … some do, some don’t. And focusing on inherent talent alone discounts the value of the hard work I’ve chosen to put into my paintings.
The case for hard work
Consider these two paintings of mine. The one on the left was my first figure drawing and figure painting ever. It was done in 2.5 hours. While I do still like the colors, otherwise it is utterly incompetent. I remember being super angry when class was over; I knew I could do better. And I could. Compare that to the painting at right, which I did a couple months ago, also in 2.5 hours. Huge difference; right? But both were done with the same amount of innate talent.
Do I think I have a natural gift? Probably. But I think that it’s only about 10% of the equation, maybe less. Most people possess some degree of creativity. It is the cultivation of that gift that makes an artist. Because, even with talent, painting is HARD. Damn hard.
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.
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.
With my first show, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of completion, and what it means to me as a painter. As in … an incomplete painting is worthless. A promising start is only that. It does not hang on a wall. It does not sell. It just sits there, taunting me and taking up space. An unrealized vision, standing in the way of the painter I want to become. Putting my paintings out there is part of the process. It not only opens me up to criticism, it also sets forth the possibility of success. So I’ve been finishing most of the new paintings I start, as well as going through the ones I have stacked in a drawer and finishing anything that has potential. Yes, there are some paintings that aren’t worth finishing or that are strictly learning experiences. But the rest are either going forward or getting painted over pronto. No use holding onto failures. I still have enough of those weekly to keep me humble, lol.
I finished two paintings yesterday; the nude just needed a couple tweaks. “Chanel” has been taunting me for a year. No more.
If you paint plein air, you have probably observed this: that early in the day or toward sunset, the light changes more quickly. I was doing this painting at Belle Isle close to sunset and working furiously. I kept rubbing my eyes. I could not believe the amazing light on the grasses; it was as if they were on fire. No color I had in my pastel box was even close to the color of the glorious light. If I added white, it looked too cool; if I added any other color, it looked too dark. So I began darkening the other colors around the grasses to get the effect, working as quickly as possible as I began to lose the light.
Inevitably, this is always the moment when somebody stops by and wants to chat. A very nice woman came up to me, complimented the work in progress and kept talking away. I told her I would chat, but I had to keep painting. Most people leave after watching for a couple minutes, but she did not. So after about 10 minutes, I told her I had an exhibit currently and handed her a postcard inviting her to my reception at the Scarab Club. The postcard features nudes, btw. She looked surprised, hung around for a couple more minutes, then handed me a pamphlet. At which point I realized that I had solicited a Jehovah’s Witness before she had the chance to solicit me, lol! I think she appreciated the irony as well, because she and her husband were laughing really hard as they drove off. My brother is a Witness; I don’t mind them. They’re always respectful; just trying to live up to their faith. I hope someone is being nice to my brother and his family when they go door-to-door.
Anyway, it’s been a couple weeks, and I cannot stop thinking about the fiery light that night and how my colors were so inadequate for the task. It was astonishingly beautiful. I felt some kinship with Van Gogh, and how he wanted to gouge his eyes out because his paint colors couldn’t describe what he saw. I guess it was close enough; this piece sold at my reception to a fellow painter and a wonderful supporter of the arts in Detroit.