Story of this little painting, Spring Afternoon in the Catskills
Have you ever wanted to do something really bad and then, when you finally had the chance to do it, it was so frustrating that you thought you must have made a mistake in ever deciding to do it? What did you do? Did you quit or stick with it? Here is just one of my such stories, and after you read it, I’d love to hear about yours.
As I mentioned last month, I had always wanted to learn to paint outdoors, “en plein air” as it’s called in the art world. I saw in history texts and in the movies how painters painted on location and it looked like such a wonderful time. From having art classes in school and knowing how long I took to paint something, I could not fathom how I would ever be able to paint an outdoor scene on location before the weather changed. In the summer of 2009, I took a week long plein air class with the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts which was a good step for me because we were able to set up and paint in the same location every day during that week which was plenty challenging for me. If you read my blog last month, you know that in the spring of 2015, I had the opportunity to take a week long plein air class in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Each art class is subject to the methods of the artist who is instructing the class which I have come to enjoy because I learn something from each of them and use what works for me. In this particular class, I was already a bit apprehensive knowing that we would be painting a different scene every day, but wanted to challenge myself and try to do this.
The first morning of the week, we gathered in the large studio room on the grounds of the Greenville Arms Inn for artistic instruction as it pertained to landscape painting. Then we went out on the grounds and made small “Notan” sketches with thick black markers to practice how we would begin every composition that week. That was an interesting technique that was new to me. After lunch, we drove to a nearby field where our instructor, Lorenzo Chavez, gave a very informative demonstration. He is an excellent teacher as well as artist as he explained every step of the process. He talked about how sometimes you add, subtract, or emphasize elements to create the best composition. He also explained the usefulness of a tonal underpainting and choosing the color for that depending on our color scheme. Then, he had each of us choose a location in the field to paint. I walked around the clump of bushes to the other side of the field a bit away from the “crowd.” I found a spot that seemed to have a pretty interesting view and set my easel up.
I began with a Notan as instructed to figure out the lights, darks, and basic shapes. It was a gray, windy spring day there in upstate New York, so I chose purple tones for my underpainting thinking that’s what I’d want as a base. The underpainting needed to be done very thin (using a lot of turpentine or mineral spirits) so it would dry enough to quickly lay the color over it. This hurry-up process was new to me and I was beginning to feel quite frustrated. I can’t even tell you how many times the wind blew my little painting off my easel, getting bits of weeds in the wet paint. Little bugs also decided to fly into it and get stuck. I was honestly in tears as I picked it up feeling like I was such a failure at this thing that I had been so hopeful to do. Lorenzo made his rounds to each student and I quickly tried to hide my tears as he made his way over to me. He chuckled at my frustration saying that nature elements embedded in the paint are sometimes just part of plein air painting and that it was okay. This helped me calm down somewhat, but my perfectionism was being tried immensely. I was truly pretty much a bundle of stress even as we packed up to go back to the inn for dinner. I thought that I was the only one in the class who could not do this; how was I going to make it through a whole week? I was humbled and a bit distressed.
It turns out that sometimes being distressed and humbled are good for us. I know, that’s easy to read about and say we agree with, but when it’s happening, it’s not fun. The other class members, Lorenzo, and his sweet wife were all so pleasant to be around for dinner; I even learned that I wasn’t the only frustrated artist that day.
Each day was a little easier as I began grasping the methods to paint quickly. Every day, there was a demonstration before we began painting. On one of the days, we painted from two different locations using different methods for each – just keeping it fresh! It really helped me to loosen some of my perfectionist tendencies. I also learned a really wonderful lesson, that sometimes things that we think are mistakes or shouldn’t be there, are actually good and should be left. Even now, when my brush does something that I didn’t mean for it to do, I don’t immediately wipe it off or try to “fix” it. I step back, take a look and, many times, realize that what it just did actually looks better than what I had planned in my head. I am learning to apply this to life as well. So many times, things don’t go according to our plans, but sometimes something even more beautiful comes out of it if we just keep going.
I still have days that I almost quit a painting; I’ll think that it is so bad and beyond help, but something tells me to keep at it. Many times, that painting ends up being one of my favorites. I have learned to love plein air painting for many reasons. Of course, I love being outdoors, but it also sharpens my observation skills and brings a realness or freshness to my work that a photograph just can’t do. I am so glad I didn’t give up after my first attempts.
I'm sure we've all read the inspiring poem, "Don't Quit" by John Greenleaf Whittier but here is a link so you can read it again. Maybe print it off and put it up somewhere so you can see it often and take it to heart.