Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fun Dog

One night a student of mine was given a painting of a dog that she was expected to use as a style basis for a painting of another dog. The original painting was at best a colorful, lively, child-like rendition and at worse an immature, uneducated gesture. Several people liked it. Several people made no comment. I thought it colorful, but definitely not worth emulating. It said dog. It said fun. It said fun dog, but it did nothing else.

A neighbor of mine said that her five-year old was taking an art fundamentals class and now calling himself an artist and so is she. Does that mean if her son took a first aid class—never mind whether five year olds can take first aid classes—and started calling himself a doctor that she too would say, yes, he is a doctor?

Is any picture painted by anyone art? Is the painting of the dog art simply because someone took a stick with color on the end and put it on cloth? Is anyone an artist because they say they are? Is any insight, training or education even needed? Virtually everyone on the planet now calls themselves artists: street performers, pop singers, beauticians. There are entire museums devoted to visionary artists, people who spend days making entire cities out of toothpicks, along with pictures made by the criminally insane.

So where does that leave those who spend their entire lives dedicated to learning, educating, and practicing the art of painting? Who, like the classical realists of today followed a different path from the Dadaists and instead think, like the Greeks, that an artist should represent the purest forms of an ideal of truth and beauty, upon which the mind can reflect and thus be elevated. Not something anyone easily comes by, something that takes an enormous amount of doing.

I think it depends on how you want to look at the act of creating. I think those of us to like to think of themselves as an Artist with a big "A" sometimes look down on those who we think are only artists with a little "a". Instead, I think we need to recognize that all adults and children who call themselves artists (big and little "a"s) have discovered, on some level, that the act of creating is something very basic and fundamental to who we are as people. That the mere fact that virtually everyone calls themselves an artist is really akin to them discovering their humanity—that this act is very human and can be found in young children and in people with disabilities. As an artist I spend my life looking at the world and seeking inspiration beyond myself. For me, by my simple act of painting nature I am not only imitating creation in a literal sense, but also imitating the Creator in a more profound sense. So when a little child discovers this joy of creating or someone sees their love of their dog in a colorful rendition, both have gotten beyond themselves and closer to enlightenment. And who are we to judge.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Element of Time

One of the first things one discovers while painting outdoors is how fleeting light is. The solid forms don't change very much, but the light certainly does. I spoke to one artist who said that he only allows 45 minutes per day to paint and returns as often as is needed until the work is complete. Monet would rise before dawn, paint the first canvas for half an hour, then switch to the second canvas and so on. He would come back the next day, providing the weather was the same. I heard my students say they desperately wanted to take a picture, not for composition but to work from, in order to catch the light. But I'm not convinced that capturing one moment of time is the point of plein aire painting in this millennium or that is was the objective at the beginning of the art movement. In fact, I would argue that the reason to paint out-of-doors is actually the opposite. Art need not be about a specific instant but a moment in time. Unlike the Impressionists, it should separate itself from the camera by being over time, a contemplation, insight and thought. Plein aire is a way of thinking and of abstracting. It is about a state of mind.

This need to capture one instant in time, for the representational painter, is directly related to the invention of photography and photography's ability to capture single moments. When the plein aire movement started, this was not the case. What actually fueled the plein aire movement was the rise of landscape art and its acceptance and salability. John Ruskin said that landscape painting was the "chief artistic creation of the nineteenth century" and "the dominant art". In direct reaction to the Industrial Revolution among other things, nature had gained a value "akin" to religion that it previously didn't have. And artists were observing nature directly while they painted as opposed to working from their field sketches. While the landscape had appeared in earlier schools, it was still several notches below historical landscapes, portraits and religious works—until now.

The biggest factor was not, as many people think, the invention of tube paints in 1841. John Constable began his plein aire campaign in 1814, determined "to finish a small painting on the spot". Samuel Palmer and the Pre-Raphaelites were painting outdoors using watercolors, gouache and oil in the 1820s, and, of course, Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School was painting as early as 1825. All without the use or need of tube paints. No, the biggest rational was what nature or the concept of nature had become to the society and culture that these artists were living in.

Primary among the shared principles of Hudson River School artists was belief in natural religion or, in short, the idea that celebrating and closely observing nature were spiritual acts akin to prayer, through which an individual could both acknowledge and commune with the power of a creator. (Judith Hansen O'Toole)

There is yet another motive for referring you to the study of Nature early—its influence on the mind and heart. The external appearance of this our dwelling place, apart from its wondrous structure and functions that minister to our well-being, is fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning only surpassed by the light of Revelation. It is impossible to contemplate with right-minded, reverent feeling, its inexpressible beauty and grandeur, for ever assuming now forms of impressiveness under the varying phases of cloud and sunshine, time and season, without arriving at the conviction "That all which we behold is full of blessings-that the Great Designer of these glorious pictures has placed them before us as types of the Divine attributes, and we insensibly, as it were, in our daily contemplations, "To the beautiful order of His works learn to conform the order of our lives." (Asher B Durand, Letter II)

The majority of artists working en plein aire were not concerned, at this point in time, with one 30-minute moment in time. Their concerns were capturing a state of mind, of studying nature in order to learn from her, seeking meaning and communing with the power of the work of the Creator. They believed the diligent perusal of, and lens like fidelity to nature "in the raw" was a path to spiritual insight. This was not a movement interested in optical effects but in seeking truth through observation and contemplation.

The Impressionists, however, did become interested in a moment in time. They became interested in color at the expense of form. Of how we see color and how color changes with light and how fleeting color is. It was precisely because photography could capture a single moment that forced Impressionists to rethink what and how they were painting. If a photograph could capture form, what were they doing? They were focusing on what photography did not do at this point, make color. They left form to the machine. They competed with photography on capturing the light effects of color in that very specific moment of time. The artists before them did not. They focused on abstracting from nature, the artist before them did not. They created work that no photograph could imitate. Because of this, many completed final paintings on site as opposed to painted sketches later painted from in the studio.

Interestingly, today's representational artists pick up painting with this thread. They try to capture a moment in time. Ironically, many of today's artists (and I include myself) will use photos as source material for their studio work. Today's cameras capture not a moment in time but a millisecond. Not a human biotical view, but a mechanical single optical view. Why use this as a standard of truth? In fact, a photograph in which so many people now assume as truth is not how we see, any more than Picasso saying we see all sides of an object at the same time—we contemplate our surroundings over time. We do not see in milliseconds.

The value of painting from life is not to imitate a camera. The value of painting out of doors today should go back before the Impressionist (pre-impressionism) and pick up the idea of being in nature as a value to itself. The needs and lessons of the environment are in some measure greater today than two hundred years ago. As artists, we should reflect what nature is telling use—not what the camera describes—and see what comes of it.

The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. (Robert Henri)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Plein Aire Tips

I have been able to paint en plein aire more this summer than in previous summers. It could be the weather or simply the fact that once I started this season, I found myself wanting to go whenever possible. As the Shrine Mont Art and Soul Conference approaches here are a few tips that I find useful.

Be Comfortable
Make sure your chair, if you sit while painting, is comfortable for a two-to-three hour sitting. Bring a hat, sunscreen and bug spray, but also consider an umbrella. Many times I have started out in the shade only to find that the sun has moved, and not only changed my shadows, but taken away my shade. Having your work in direct sunlight is less than ideal.

Be Prepared
Take along drinking water and a snack. Bring your camera. You can use it as your viewfinder but also to record your scene for later in the studio. This is especially useful for those who are new to plein aire. While purists would frown on this, it is great tool for both the beginner and the seasoned artist. It will show you how successful you can be.

It sounds simple, but many people are uncomfortable painting in public and they let it affect their approach. Most people who stop by to look are interested in painting themselves and tend to be positive. Be savvy, have a few business cards handy.

Make Every Minute Count
Keep in mind this is not a studio painting. Instead of taking weeks to complete, most artists think of field studies as taking two-to-three hours. Some do return the next day but usually paint a different viewpoint or scene. I like to spend 15 minutes on my thumbnail sketch; 15-20 minutes on my under drawing/painting; 10-15 minutes on color and the rest of the time painting for a two-to-three hour outing. I must be in the right frame of mind when I put paint to paper so jumping ahead without thinking won’t work for me. A plein aire outing is successful when I have seen nature unfolding before me.
Remember the Thumbnail Sketch
The best way to save time is to make time for your thumbnails. They are your blueprints for success. The more you do them, the easier they become. They are where you decide composition, intent, and approach. The worst thing you can do is to paint like a camera. You are not a camera; there is a reason why you chose the scene in front of you.

Find a Composition
Part of the enjoyment of painting en plein aire is exploring the area for things that interest you. It can be a small detail of a landscape or something that takes in more of the surrounding environment. After a while you get a feeling for what you enjoy looking at. Once you’ve settled on something, use your viewfinder or your camera and consider your possibilities. Translate these, using simplified large forms to your thumbnails. As in any good painting, balance your work.

Decide on the Intent
Within your composition identify the center of interest. The center of interest does not have to be an object although it can; it can be the way the light falls or reflects or the way two things interact; or the contrast between two forms—but it needs to be defined. The center of interest does not have to be in the center of the page. The center of interest is what you, as an artist want to talk about.

Think About Your Approach
Generally speaking, oil works from back to front, dark to light and the general to the specific; watercolor from front to back; light to dark and general to the specific but you also want to think about how you are going to tackle each area and what kind of paint application will best support your intent—which will trump the back to front, front to back approach. For example, you may decide that a wet-in-wet approach is best for the background but you want to use drybrush or line work for the foreground. You may decide with oil, that broken color might work best for the distant mountains but a tighter more detailed application is needed for the center of interest. What ever your direction, the thumbnail is the time to think about these things, not after you’ve already put paint on the canvas or paper.

Give Yourself Direction
Once you have thought through your thumbnail sketch, mark off the center and transfer the composition to your support. If you are using oil, use ultramarine; if you are using watercolor, an HB pencil will do. Limit yourself to fifteen minutes and spend the most time on your center of interest. Keep it simple, but give yourself a framework to work in.

Mix It Up
Always mix up more color than you think you will need. And always mix up at least five to six values. On the green side, mix yellow, blue and gray greens to cover the wide color range of green in the summer. Mix your “black” not from the tube but from a cool and warm color so that you can adjust the temperature to the shadow color.

Have Fun
Now let the scene in front of you unfold. By concentrating on your intent, on what you find worthy to paint, you will not be overwhelmed by what you see. Let things become clearer, let the light change and enjoy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Practice and More Practice

“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”–Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, 1475-1564

I love the fact that the terminology used in music is some of the same terminology used in art: harmony, unity, discord, repetition, scale, and composition. This is not by accident. There are correlations, not just in the terminology but the principles that some terms refer to. Repetition, for instance, in art as in music, is thought of as a principle. A principle, used to create unity by the repetition of individual elements (notes) in a painting. Unity being the objective of composition, i.e. the idea of creating gestalt, of making out of many one. But repetition is also how we learn a great deal of things—watching things twice, reading things over, practicing a piece of music. When you sit down for the first time with a piece of music, you work your way through it. No matter how good a musician you are, how well you read music, very few of us play the piece perfectly the first time through. It takes the second and third look, the practice, the memorization, before we perform the piece. There are practitioners of music who insist that you memorize the music in order to really know the work.

The same thing can hold true for those who paint the world around them. You really don’t see what’s in front of you until you draw it. You see the object obviously, but you really don’t see the individual object. Drawing brings out not just details, but actual things that you don’t notice until you look at it differently. So it isn’t the first time through, which is truly a gesture, an armature, a “rough” or an outline. It isn’t always the second, although things do get clearer, but it can be the third time through. People always, including myself, are impatient with drawing. They want to get to the performance, the painting, quickly—not the research or the study. We want to know right away. We want to start the painting, without really knowing what we are looking at.

Good realism takes more than one look. The tree is this tree, the leaf this leaf, the person, this person. Unless we are simply interested in our first impression of the scene, not the individual—and there are times we are—we have to take the time to learn it. Realism is not about improvisation.

You don’t see many studies anymore. Even Cezanne, who looked and looked and saw and saw didn’t do studies. Studies, or ├ętudes, were thought, at one time, to be essential to getting at the truth, so to speak. Michelangelo drew study after study until he knew the form, until he memorized the form. He practiced and practiced. His work was never an improvisation or an impression. Without question his innate talent was gigantic, but he didn’t wing it. He worked at what he did.

Mistakenly, there are those who think that drawing realistically is simply copying. Copying the world, copying a photo of the world. Drawing realistically is not copying. To say that implies that there is no learning, no editing. If it’s so easy then why is it that so few can do it well? When you draw a leaf, a tree, a bird, a forest, you never forget it. The object you draw is not something you know. It is something you learn while doing. It’s equal to learning what something is called. Drawing is the visual equivalent of naming.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Art and Soul Conference July 18-23, 2010

One of my most memorable times last summer was driving the “mule” deep into the Virginia woods to paint ancient rock formations. I had a student of mine aboard who had an injured foot and could hardly make the three-quarters of a mile trek to our destination. The “mule” as it was called, was actually an all-terrain vehicle that let us go along rocky paths and over small logs in addition to letting us turn tight corners. Perfect for carrying an injured student as well as heavy art supplies. Best of all it was red. When we arrived in the morning the day was cool with a threat of rain but we quickly unloaded. So many places to paint! The group quickly broke up and found unique things: moss, ferns, old rock, flora, and even small caves. Everyone did something uniquely their own and slowly things began to appear on the painting supports.

That was until the rain came. Soon after lunch, a dedicated few returned to our spots. The rain, light at first, did not detour us. We were so involved in the painting process, we were determined to continue. In fact, the more the rain fell the more determined we became. Entire watercolor paintings were literally washed away. The oil painter (at this point only one) faired better but only her painting. The best thing about the day, and the reason it remains my favorite memory of the week, was that it best summed up what plein aire painting is all about. It is about being out there thinking, witnessing and observing nature in all her sweet, light, pretty days and all her damp, wet, moody days. It is not about getting the perfect painting or being able to finish everything you start. It is about the doing, the going, the exploring. It is about the art of being there and looking. The fact that paintings were gone in a downpour did not change the fact that making them was just as gratifying as making one that remained intact. That looking at the forest in the rain was just as wonderful as looking at a lake in the bright sunshine.

There are many reasons to paint outdoors. Some artists use it as a way to rejuvenate themselves, others use is a starting point for a later work and still others use it to improve their skills by forcing themselves to work quick on their feet. Some simply want to drink in the beauty of nature, to find fresh, evocative, inspiring and challenging subjects; to spend time in the quiet places; to capture the liveliness of birds or the grace of a red fox; to learn about your environment. And some, like us, will be painting outdoors to explore creation.

Why bother painting outdoors when you can just as easily take a photo back to your nice, warm, cozy studio? Because in addition to the many reasons above, painting from life is fundamental and essential to the growth of any realist painter. Turning a three dimensional scene into a two dimensional picture is a basic skill that any artist should have before they call themselves an artist of any genre. Without it you are simply working from hearsay.

Once again we are headed to Shrine Mont for the Art and Soul Conference. Where new places will be discovered and explored, new paintings painted and new bonds formed. Whether you paint with discipline or as a hobby, all are welcome. Join us. For more information visit Shrine Mont and download the brochure.