Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Memorize Your Coordinates

Plans for the plein air course I'll be teaching in April are constantly sifting in my head;  I’m always noting things that are useful to think about with regard to painting outside, and filing them away in order of importance.  One issue I was dealing with on Monday stood out as particularly critical:  after painting, I raced to my “teaching art” folder and wrote it down on the first page, as something to talk about the first day.
For veteran plein air painters, this is old hat, BUT:  I’m a veteran plein air painter, and this struck me more forcefully than ever.  (Not to mention that I’m always re-learning, and re-appreciating, old rules.)  We all know that you need to establish the parameters of your image/view/scene before you begin.  You use your fingers or some kind of viewfinder – possibly a rectangle, square, etc., that you cut from cardboard (I prefer my fingers:  that way I can instantly experiment with different sizes and shapes) -- and position them so that you can identify the center, corners, and edges of your proposed image. 
The exact location of every tree limb or tuft of grass within that frame is too much information to remember, but you should try as best you can to MEMORIZE, and hold fast in the front of your mind, those key coordinates.  I have a tendency to look, get a general sense, then start painting – and then have to stop, jam my brushes under my arm and – woops, there one fell on the ground; now I've got it, but I'm getting paint on my sleeve; oh all right I’ll just put them down for a minute; what was that image again? etc. – over and over again.  Bad practice.  It’s a waste of energy and time, and it’s interrupting of flow, all of which is hard on a plein air painter – on any painter. 
If you make an effort to imprint your coordinates in your mind, you won’t have to stop, and you’ll be able to paint more freely and confidently, with a sense that you have your composition – that arrangement of elements that moved you to paint – in your grasp. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Small Painting Adapter for a French Easel

Just wanted to share my husband Rob’s ingenious small-painting adapter for my
French easel.

I needed something that would keep the painting completely stable, so that I can paint vigorously without fear of it shifting under my brush.  Also, I didn't want it to rest on a lip -- I like to be able to paint right past the edges on all sides.  Rob suggested cutting a piece of plywood and aligning screws to the edges of my small boards.  When the screws are screwed down against the boards, the boards are stuck tight.

Since I’ve only used two sizes of paintings so far, I’ve only made two pairs of screw holes – one pair to fit a horizontal 6 x 8 board and one to fit a vertical one, as you can see above.
I cut a 19 x 13 piece of plywood so that I could secure it with the canvas-holding arm and so that it would not be wider than the easel itself, which can cause it to catch wind and shift around.  It was a VERY windy day today and nothing moved at all.  I was thrilled.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not So Old After All

I should post an addendum to that “Up With the New” post: The rule holds that it’s best to break the rules, even your own. 

I went back to that spot I’d sworn off, and looked at it differently -– as a vertical composition rather than a square one, and taking into account two new trees in powdery white bloom – and produced something I really liked. Or at least that I liked yesterday, and today so far. And I’m not sure I had the elevated, swept-up-in-rapture feeling that I was advocating in that earlier post. It was more like an annoyed frame of mind: I was annoyed that I’d worked so hard the day before and still produced something that looked timid, and annoyed at having done nothing the whole week that I liked.

My feeling was: I’m just going to plow forward, and when I see that I need to backtrack or correct, do it immediately. And that happened almost right away: I laid in a medium tone (for the whole brown/grey hillside) and then realized I needed to go darker in certain areas (for shadows, bushes, trees, etc.), so right away loaded up a brush with dark tones and took those areas back down – loosely. And when I ran into trouble with the trees on the horizon, and their edges, I fussed with them a little, then forced myself to stop fussing and just LOOK, and put down paint to reflect what I was seeing. – WITHOUT looking at the image I was creating, much: just looking and laying down paint. Laid in on top of the work I’d already done, that loose painting worked, finally. 
Early Spring Hillside, © 2012 Julia Sutliff, 12 x 9
Fussy work won’t get you where you want to go, but it can be a good foundation from which to jump.

So I threw out yet another of the very rules I’d been trying to establish.  Painting, unfortunately, seems to work much better on an intuitive level rather than a well-thought-out one.   It’s too bad, since your intuition is not always fully “on.”  As with flexibility – that quality of being light enough on your feet that you can catch yourself at the second you start to stray from a productive, happy line of thought.  But IF you can tap into your intuition and flexibility, good things can happen.
It’s an odd thing how risk can feel at times so counter-productive.  You think:  Can’t mess up!  Must proceed carefully!  And yet if you let go and work loosely, chancily – staying open, playing – you might make decisions/marks that you’ll have to reverse, but you increase your chances of producing something with a spirit of openness and play embodied in it.  Which is an effect I enjoy.  And so many effects I produce I DON’T enjoy.  Now if I could just turn on a switch to create that state of mind.

Best to Jump

Yesterday, probably had a failure.  Probably picked a bad spot:  too much grey-brown.  Maybe I learned something, though, about adding color to bring up a dull painting. 
It’s become more and more evident and interesting to me to notice how, when I do that – go in loosely and not very carefully, gesturing (in response to vague suggestions of color in a landscape) with more intense/bright color, the landscape comes alive in the manner of the landscape itself – it actually looks more like the landscape – more vibrant in the way the scene actually is.  Hard to explain.  It’s as if it makes it vibrate, the way the landscape vibrates when you’re out there.  But the caveat (in my experience) is:  no fake color.  It has to be drawn from the suggestions of color that are out there.  You can be wild and loose with it, but it has to originate in what you see.  And if I follow that rule, I tend to get good results – better results than if I don’t let loose. 
It can feel like going a little crazy toward the end of a painting.  I tend to paint what I see in general terms, and then when I end up with something limp, I pull out the stops and just start taking stabs at all kinds of things – but as long as I just push forward and don’t get scared, interesting things sometimes happen.  It’s usually at the point where I’m ready to give up, though:  where I think, well, this painting is a loss anyway, so I might as well go a little wild and see what happens.  Which is a rather unstable and unpredictable way to go about things.  I wonder, why not just start out crazy?  But it’s because:  I haven’t figured out what “normal” is yet.  You need to start somewhere – go through the attempt at a straightforward route to what you’re trying to do, and if that doesn’t work, then explore other options.  I like a fluid, half-thought-out effect, and maybe you can get to that best if you’ve already laid some fully considered groundwork.  And then you jump off the cliff, set yourself free.
I have such a greater appetite for risk when I’m outside.  It’s a precious thing – a gift.  Why squander it and work inside?
I can bring a painting into my studio, start messing around with it (because I didn’t have time to finish on site, or because something’s bothering me that I didn’t notice before, etc.), haggle and fuss infinitely, yet still not get it right, or satisfactory; then, take it out to the same spot the next day and with a few strokes, END it.  -- Fueled by that ease with risk that being outside infuses you with.  Not to be underestimated, not to be not taken advantage of.  It seems (to me now, anyway) as necessary as paint – as necessary a part of the painting process.  I don’t paint still lifes, so I don’t know if it’s the same thing when you work “from life” inside.  I don’t know, that is, whether it’s a phenomenon of working “from life” or “outside.”  But it’s real, and it’s very helpful.  I’m back to feeling like I don’t want to do it any other way, ever. 
Regarding going back over dull colors with bright ones:  it seems analogous to what my RISD watercolor teacher taught us about layering red, yellow, and blue at the outset of a painting:  you get this cool underpainting that looks transparent and full of light, whereas if you’d mixed those colors and laid them down in one layer, it would look like mud.  With oil – the way I paint with oil -- you need a first layer that combines colors and tones – and looks like mud – but then you need to go back overtop with bright/intense colors to mimic the many colors that are in nature, but hidden in small amounts or in diffuseness.  But you can’t let diffuseness make you think that nature should be expressed as an amalgam of colors – versions of mud.  Or rather, you can, but that’s another style of painting. 
I want what I do to be gathering color.  There’s so much more out there than you think you see.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Up With the New

I was reminded on Sunday how critical it is to switch painting sites fairly often, and not to overdo a certain scene.

I know this rule already, but like all painting rules, I like to break them, or at least bend them to see if they break.  So I headed to a site I've painted a few times lately.

Dark Hillside, © 2012 Julia Sutliff, 15 x 15

It has a view of a wooded hillside, with new colors coming in all the time, à la spring.  I figured, well, I've never been here in the morning -- between new colors and different light, maybe it will look new. 

Happily, there was a morning haze that rendered most of the scene simply blue, so it was really quite a different image.  But as I turned off the engine and prepared to set up, I felt my heart sinking at the prospect of tracing the same outlines – even of confronting the same forms, albeit transformed.  And then I realized that, haze or no haze, I couldn't paint there again.  I might be able to come back in a few months, but not any time soon.   

Not long ago I read a New Yorker article about a neuroscientist named David Eagleman.  The author writes that Eagleman, very aware of the workings of his own brain, studies a range of topics and switches his focus often, in order to keep perspective fresh:  “By leaping from topic to topic, he forces his brain to give each problem far more attention than familiarity would allow.”  When I read that,  I thought, that's it!  That's why I need to stay on the move.

When I go back to a site too often, when I try to copy a piece I've done, or when I try to work on the same painting for much longer than a day, the work suffers.  I suffer.  (I'm a huge Monet fan, but sometimes I question all those layers, and his comment late in life that he was "more than ever disgusted at things that come easily at the first attempt"; I lean to the side of Corot, who wrote that he "noticed that everything that was done correctly on the first attempt was more true, and the forms more beautiful.")  It's comforting to know that it may not be whim or lack of fortitude that makes my spirits flag at the very idea of retracing my steps.  It has to do with wanting to paint well.  You need to be avid.  Curiosity, interest, and excitement manifest in your painting -- and so, unfortunately, does boredom. 

As it turned out, I couldn’t find a subject in the park that day.  After telling my husband how much I’d love to get out in the early morning for a change, the morning was not cooperating:  the long shadows and mistiness were making everything look flat rather than mysterious.  So I was driving around rather aimlessly, thinking how ironic it was that on this lovely morning, I might have to bail out altogether and go home. 
Then I passed the side yard of a house on the park's edge where a tree hung over from the side, laden with white blossoms and new green leaves, through which you could see the smoky blue of a distant, misty sky.  And I was caught.  And that is a good method to find a place to paint:  to look and look until you get caught -- snared by a composition or an effect so beautiful you want to pull up a chair and sit awhile. 

White Blossoms and Blue Sky, © 2012 Julia Sutliff, 11 x 7
Sometimes an effect of light and color will grab you; sometimes it will be an entire scene, or just parts of one.  Sometimes you won’t be know how to cobble together a composition to present a beautiful effect, or how to deal with a section or element that just doesn’t work.  But probably the best way to choose a subject is to be compelled, to be moved.  And to be driven by that fascination, and the energy it gives you, to explore and test yourself. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Van Gogh "Up Close" and Monet Too

I took a trip up to the “Van Gogh Up Close” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few weekends ago.  Saw great Van Goghs and some very lovely other work as well – one wonderful Monet of the side of a river in winter, with ice breaking up. 

Claude Monet, Morning Haze, 1894.  Philadelphia Museum of Art

This reproduction doesn't do the painting justice, of course.  The precision of the color of the misty trees is lost, as are the brilliant blues slicing through the snow in the foreground.  Van Gogh, in particular, is ill-served by reproduction:  I can't bring myself to post an image of my favorite piece from the show, "Edge of Wheatfield with Poppies," since no photo I found came even close to matching its hues.  His colors are wonderful and absolutely distinct -- they seem to defy translation.
More than ever, I had the strange feeling that they – the painters – were talking to me through the paintings.  (Of course they are – writer use words, painters use paint.)  Each viewer, I imagine, hears something specific.  As a painter, I hear about how certain problems were solved, how things (clouds, shadow, edges…) can be expressed in certain ways.  I’d like to think I'm a good audience for their work, for their trials and passions on display.   Having tried and failed with paint so much myself, I feel I can appreciate where they succeeded.   To browse through an art museum can be both like sitting down to a banquet and taking a desk in a classroom:  I feel simultaneously filled up as an aesthete and tutored as a painter.

As I hear all this commentary among the paintings, it feels as if the artists are right in the room with me.  That may be a particularly cool aspect of painting, vs. some other forms of artistic expression:  when you are seeing it (well-restored), you are in the physical presence of that thing the artist created – the very paint laid down by his/her hands.  And something about the materiality of it can seem to stir up ghosts in the room.  (The flip side of this is how hard it is to get in the presence of great painting, and that even when you do, there never seems to be enough time to take it in – I feel like the only way to properly see a painting is to do it every day for half an hour, over the course of a month or so...)

Another great thing about painting, or at least Impressionist painting, is that the artists are talking (with paint) just about what they see -- telling the story of a sensual, light- and color-infused moment in time and in nature.  Those moments are critical to me and my experience in the world, so it's a treat, and something of a relief, to hear (see) some of the artists I most admire attempt to tell about that experience, and to get a glimpse of what kind of heart and soul they put into it.
I disagree with critics who say that Monet’s work isn’t emotional.  I think they mistake emotion for the state of mind of the artist.  Van Gogh’s paintings seem to contain more of his mind and his invention than Monet’s, I would say that.  But Monet, without being a “realist” painter, is closer in a way to his subject, I think.  I appreciate that, because I swoon for subject matter too.  That winter painting of his made me want to sink to my knees – in awe of his ability to bring out the beauty of that scene, to bring it to life on canvas.  Van Gogh’s ramped-up, almost cartoon-y, sumptuous, rollicking versions of nature are thrilling – they’re very tactile, and full of joy. 

Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889.  The Cleveland Museum of Art
(The velvety blues in the tree trunks, the intense yellows raining down from the sky, the vivid green of the shutters:  lamentably lost in translation.)  While Monet’s are like love songs.  And they bring a moment so close to you – within a hair’s breadth.  Something about his responsiveness to the landscape, to nature, to beauty – something about the love he seems to be expressing – is intensely moving.  It’s other-focused, in a way – it’s like viewing devotion itself.  While Van Gogh is like viewing the mind of the painter – which is also, again, wonderful, beautiful.
Though I don’t think it’s that simple, or even that I’m right.  Thinking back, I feel like the paintings in the Van Gogh exhibit that I most responded to were very much full of love.  Maybe it’s that his intensity can be distracting?  Maybe.  Monet’s portraits of nature are more quiet.  But Van Gogh’s color is phenomenal.  I don’t always appreciate his brushstrokes -- they can feel arbitrary, rather than responsive – but often I really do, for their dynamism.  I'm drawn to his work for its vibrancy and abandon, and to Monet’s for its balance of emotion and sensitivity to subject/place.
An irony, maybe, is that I like best some of Monet’s late works that are like Van Gogh’s in spirit – more loose, more visceral, more slapdash.  And extremely colorful, with big bold marks.

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, Reflections of Weeping Willows, 1919.  Benesse Corporation, Okayama, Japan.
Yet Monet always, even then, has that amazing sensitivity, that balance of exuberance and grace.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dancing on the Head of a Pin

Wikipedia says that the question "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" is a metaphor for "wasting time debating topics of no practical value." To me, thought, it's a metaphor for painting.

Painting feels like trying to balance on a very small point.  You need to "dance" -- to feel free, act freely, move with grace -- while keeping a lot of rules in mind (yet staying prepared to reject them), paying very close attention (but not too much), and remaining poised to stop, change, or even reverse yourself at any given moment.  More often than not, I can't make it work.  But it's fascinating to try.