A Painting is the Sum of a Lot of Decisions

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Unfinished pochade study, #14 in series of 50, oil on 8 x 6-in linen panel.

The artwork an artist produces is the result of long series of decisions. Choosing colors or brushes or the type of surface to paint on are among the decisions we make, but those decisions only come after many others have been made. For example, it was chilly and windy last week, and I do most of my work plein air — on location. I didn’t want to stand in the wind so I had to think about locations that afforded some shelter and a view of something to paint. I decided to go to a nature preserve near my home, because I knew I could probably find some protection from the wind. I ended up standing in front of a big old barn, which kept the wind off me.

When we make a decision, often what happens is that decision informs other decisions. Sometimes, we end up going in a direction that may, or may not, serve us well. When we look up at what’s ahead if we keep going in the direction we’re going, it may be decision time again. This is what happened to me recently.

I started painting again last year after being away from it for more than thirty years. I’d forgotten much of what I’d once known about painting. Even using a paint brush to move the paint around on the surface the way I wanted was a struggle. When I started painting again, I decided to do plein air painting, because I love landscapes and being outdoors. It’s been a good fit for me. But what I didn’t know about plein air work is that its REALLY different from studio work. Studio work can take months or even years to finish. Plein air work is done in mere hours. Studio work, depending on the artist and style, is often refined. I think of it as deliberate. Plein air on the other hand often looks “rough,” like it’s  practice for bigger and better things, which sometimes it is. Some plein air artists will reproduce their small studies to create larger works of art in their studios. Plein air painting is also deliberate, but in a different way.

After I’d been painting plein air for awhile, I decided I needed lessons so I could learn how to paint better and faster in the field. I’m fortunate to live in an area where some REALLY GOOD plein air artists also live and teach. I’ve spent a lot of time and money learning how to paint in the past year. After a recent 3-day workshop, I was feeling kinda low about my work and the direction I seemed to be going in, which was also, by the way, the direction that I felt I had a growing commitment to continuing along. But a little voice in my head said, “You painted better a year ago than you do today.” I thought about that for awhile and finally rationalized that things often get harder before they get easier. I told myself I was learning and that everything would work itself out if I just kept doing the work.

What I was becoming aware of ever so slowly is what the differences between plein air and studio work really mean for me as an artist. One of my teachers is an excellent draftsman. He does detailed, delicate, beautiful drawings with paint and then proceeds to paint the picture. Joe’s style and technique are beautiful and his paintings sell in the $15,000 to $20,000 range. Mary, who taught the 3-day workshop, was trained in a classical style and she is skilled enough to paint highly realistic, incredible work. But the work she does today is more “expressive.” It’s still deliberate (realistic and accurate), which conveys her training, but her paintings have an energy.  She calls it “soul.” Her works also sell in the $15,000 range. I had put myself at a crossroad, and I’ve been deciding what to do now; which direction I should go.

We tell ourselves all kinds of things. We are easily mesmerized by beauty. Truth be told — I can’t be like either of these highly successful artists. I can’t follow Joe. Nor can I follow Mary. I can and have learned from them, but I believe that the whisper I heard (maybe from my creative muse) was telling me to remember who I am and to be that person when I stand in front of my easel.

The small 6 x 8-inch pochade studies I’ve been working on have been enormously helpful. I will do 50, and finished #18 yesterday. I titled it “Autumn Joy,” which is also the name of the sedum that grows in my backyard and which is the subject of the painting.

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“Autumn Joy” #18 in series of 50 pochade studies, oil on 8 x 6-in linen panel.

 

On Finding Personal Style

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8 x 6-inch oil on linen panel pochade study.

This wet (yes, those are rain drops) pochade study is #2/50 that I’ve committed to doing. My intention and reason for doing 50 out-of-door studies is two-fold. I want to improve my technical skills and I want to better understand my personal style. Austin Kleon wrote, “You can’t find your voice if you don’t use it.” I want to know my voice.

I do one timed study a day. When the chimes sound on my iPhone after 75 minutes, I have to stop painting and then I have to resist the temptation to finish the study that I always feel. The goal isn’t to produce finished artworks; it’s to improve my art. And it’s been proven that making 50 starts—and applying deliberate practices that are tied to a goal—will help me reach my goals faster.

Why show work that isn’t finished? There a several good reasons.

  • To document the process and to share with readers any discoveries that occur along the way. We humans have a tendency to forget what it’s like to be a beginner at things. That’s why experts have a difficult time speaking to or writing for the average person. They often know so much that they’ve forgotten all that they once didn’t know and, therefore, are unconscious of their own expectations.
  • To inform. Many people wrongly think artists who “make it” do so because they’re talented. More often, artists who are “making it” have worked really hard to build skills and understand their art, and to know their place in their chosen field.
  • To encourage others to share their work. It’s easy to adopt the mindset of hiding until we’re good enough to share what we do with the public. That is a self-defeating, self-perpetuated mindset. How can you know if you’re good enough at what you want to do if you don’t try, and then share your work?

 

 

 

 

Trees and Sky

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When the goal is to get better, deliberate practice is the strategy to use. Deliberate practice works because it makes the difficult familiar and, therefore, easier to do. Deliberate practice involves repetition and having a coach or mentor who can help guide the practice and offer constructive critiques.

What I learned about painting a tree and sky holes

I thought it might be easier to paint the sky behind the tree (known as sky holes) first and then paint the tree over the sky. Painting sky holes isn’t hard to do, but I reasoned—wrongly—that painting them first would save me time. A good teacher or mentor could have helped me understand why my experiment failed, but studying how other painters work and what they have to say about things like sky holes is a good alternative.

I’m reading Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson. In the chapter on Light, Carlson explains that light loses brilliance when it’s filtered through a dark mass (thick leaves). But that isn’t the “whole” story. Carlson goes on to explain that the sky color varies in value according to the size and consequent amount of light that’s admitted through them. The lightest holes are the biggest holes. The small holes are darker. I’ll apply Carlson’s suggestions on my my next painting.

What do you want to do better? How can you accomplish your goal?

Notes to Myself

If I had only …
forgotten future greatness
and looked at green things and the buildings
and reached out to those around me
and smelled the air
and ignored the forms and the self-styled obligations
and heard the rain on the roof
and put my arms around …
…it’s not too late
…it’s morning. I have been given
another day. Another day to hear and read
and smell and walk and love and glory
I am alive for another day.
Today, I don’t want to live for,

I want to live.

Anxiety is the realization that I might not reach the
rung on the opinion-ladder which I have
just set for myself. I fear death most
when I am about to exceed what others
expect of me; then death threatens to
cut me off from myself, because
“myself” is not yet.

Meaning does not exist in the future
and neither do I …

Hugh Prather wrote Notes to Myself in 1970.

In the forty years since I bought Notes to Myself in 1976, my life has “happened.” It’s easy  to took back and feel regret for what was abandoned or never realized, and to want time back so different decisions could be made. Regret, a by-product of living and of aging, is useful, though, in small doses. It reminds us that all we can really do is live in the present and with right intention. Prather’s words remind me to do that, and to use all the skill and experience I have to create now.

Field Geometry

Field Geometry, a 6×6-inch oil on gessoed panel, was painted from a photo I took near New Prague, Minnesota, last spring.

 

Do It Daily, Do It Deliberately and Improve Dramatically

To do better at anything, from painting to shooting hoops, there is no substitute for daily, deliberate practice. K. Andres Ericsson and his team have lead the research on deliberate practice, and they tell us being deliberate about practice can shorten the time—thought to be about ten years under normal conditions—to expertise. It requires four things:

  1. Motivation.
  2. Tasks designed to take advantage of existing knowledge.
  3. Immediate feedback.
  4. Repeated performance of the same or similar thing.

If you desire to get better, even much better, at what you do, then read on. If your want to improve and have fun, read on, because practice can also be fun.

It’s best to practice under the guidance of a teacher or mentor, who knows how to structure the necessary tasks and provide immediate feedback on work. Without that immediate feedback, it’s almost impossible to learn efficiently (reduce time to expertise), and improvement will be minimal. I was fortunate to find Joe Paquet, an excellent and accomplished landscape painter, to teach me how to be a better painter. Naively, I thought I could learn what I needed to know in 12 weeks. What I learned in his first 12-week studio class is that I have a lot to learn.

What I want to learn to do skillfully is plein air painting. Plein air is a French term that means painting what you actually see “outside” in open air. It has a strong connection to Impressionist work; after all, the Impressionist painters taught us how to see and depict atmosphere in our paintings. Painting outdoors has its own unique set of challenges: special equipment (compact and lightweight) that can be carried a distance, terrain, bugs, onlookers, weather, and animals (including dogs that belong to people who let them off leash, after which, they will for sure run under your easel or tripod). I don’t mind onlookers, but dogs that are too curious irritate me. And last week, my half-finished painting and paint palette ended up face down in the gravel, my turpentine spilled, and brushes splayed on the road, when I turned away for or 10 seconds and a gust of wind tipped everything over. Nothing broke, and I can finish the painting, so the consequences are minimal.

In spite of the challenges, I love plein air painting, which I’ve been doing about a year.

Boat Ramp on MississippiRock in a Hard Place (2)

I painted the one on the left (oils on 6×6-inch wood panel) last summer. I painting the one on the right (oils on 6×8-inch on linen-covered hardboard panel)  this spring, when I was about halfway through the 12-week class.

What do you want to learn to do better? What’s stopping you? Feel free to leave a comment.

Note: this is the first post in a new category: Plein Air. I plan to post about tools, tips, frustrations, and the fun of plein air painting, when inspired to do so.

 

 

 

It’s Never too Late to Begin Again

There is an underlying, indwelling creative force infusing all of life—including ourselves.
~Julia Cameron in It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again

Julia would probably say I responded to a creative force when I started this blog. And she would be right. I was riding a new wave of creative energy that I had (metaphorically speaking) caught in late 2014. That creative force also brought me back to oil painting—a practice I have not enjoyed since leaving school in the 1980s.

In the thirty or so years between packing away my paints and brushes and finding my way back to painting, I completed a bachelor and a master degree, worked in two career fields, and raised three children. I’ve learned from many of my new artist friends that my experience of turning away from creative pursuits to do other things is a very common one. Lots of people do it.

The urge to create—write for a blog, crochet scarves, grow tomatoes, photograph flowers, paint landscapes (which I do), up-cycle flea market finds, or any of a thousand other activities, including raising a family or working—is in every person, not only artists.

Julia also says that when we open our creative channel, many gentle but powerful changes are to be expected. I agree and believe its the urge to create that keeps us interested and engaged with living. It’s also what makes us interesting, what attracts new friends, and what opens the doors to new experiences.

Before you move on to do or read something else, take a few minutes to think about where you are and what your relationship is to your creative self.

Imagine a large map—perhaps your map includes the places where you’ve gone to school, worked, and raised your family. Add to your map any places that have inspired you and fed your soul. Where were those places? When were you there? What were you doing? Try drawing your map if that will help you better visualize your journey, but keep it simple.

Now, imagine yourself moving across this map (your life). Think about the many crossroads you’ve come to. At each crossroad, in what direction did you decide to go? What did you leave behind? Where are you now? Do you feel the urge to change course again? to revisit something? Describe for yourself what you’re being urged to move toward. What do you see? What do you want to do?

It is never too late to begin again to paint or plant or do any of the things that can and will help connect you with your creative self and make you feel good about being alive.

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