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.