Internal plein air monologue

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?

Maybe this.

Is there a bathroom nearby?

Make a decision; you’ve got to paint something.

Okay, this.

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?

Keep going. 

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.

Outrun bee.

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.

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“Overlook at Cranbrook,” 10×10, oil on linen, Cranbrook Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI.

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.

I’m hungry.

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?

 

 

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The perils of plein air: Light is fickle. 

Out again, trying to get used to my new plein air setup. Belle Isle was packed, so I headed to the lesser- visited side of the island. Something about this tree, with its patchwork bark, and the picnic table, completely neglected and overgrown, spoke to me. Started plein air, but unfortunately, the light abandoned me after about 35 minutes. Finished in my studio.

“Overgrown Picnic Table,” 12×9, oil on panel.

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.

That blazing peachy sun and the latest plein air encounter, lol

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.

The guy in the SUV on Belle Isle

“Path to Lighthouse,” 9×12, pastel on paper. Belle Isle, Detroit. $225. Contact the artist.

And so … something interesting always happens when I’m painting plein air on Belle Isle. Belle Isle’s perimeter is a one-way road that encircles the entire island. Yesterday, I was watching two cars back up 500 yards on the perimeter with a jaundiced eye. “Yikes!, ” I thought. “Dangerous!”  As they continued backing up, I started to feel threatened and got ready to jump out of the way. There wasn’t a lot of room between the road and the river, so that might have involved an unintentional swim.  But, no, to my horror, they were backing up FOR me! Out of the jeep jumped a young Russian painter, new to the area, who wanted to talk painting. LOL. Gave him a card to our show and told him he should come paint with us at the Scarab Club. Still think he’s a bad driver, though.