The Lazy Artist’s Guide to Subject Matter

I do believe that a good amount of the reason I love plein air painting is that it helps me avoid having to choose a subject to paint. You arrive outside in the wild (or semi-wild as the case of Victoria BC), and all you have to do is isolate a part of the landscape, weather, atmosphere and lighting which is of most interest to you. Then and there. Whereas in the studio, I tend to get bogged down in the theoretical WHY of painting, which can lead to conceptual angst and even worse… An existential “Why bother!?”. (Oh the conceptualists I have seen in this state! It is not pretty.)

So much art is in the process of being created or has been created that ifimage I stop to think about it… and consider what my fellow graduates would think…, what could I possibly add to art history!? (This is the scar of having attended art school – twice – too much contemplation). After all, I simply will not be a Tintoretto, let alone a Kandinsky!

Therefore, letting go and allowing myself to be en plein air, with all the tools at the ready, what else is there to do BUT paint!?

Just paint; The Buddhist’s solution to painting… Breathing in, I paint. Breathing out, I smile.

And smile.

Rejections in New Directions

Atop Holland Point  Plein air oil, 10" x 12"
Atop Holland Point
Plein air oil, 10″ x 12″

The other day I opened my email inbox to find one of those R-word letters; the dreaded rejection letter. All artists deal with rejection more or less if they choose to open the studio door and let the little beasts they’ve been nurturing out into the scary art world all on their own. I haven’t seen one of these R-word letters for a while so to receive one was a bit of a surprise. Especially since my husband received an acceptance letter for the same show. (I’m not competitive, no, not at all)

However, I say it was only a bit of a surprise because I am actually my own best R-word letter writer; Every 2nd or 3rd painting gets recycled or put in the bin. Having started a new direction with plein air oil painting, to a certain extent I am like a young, new artist just experiencing their first bouts of self-doubt and gallery rejections.

I haven’t really found my own true voice yet in plein air painting. It’s taking longer than I thought it would and so to receive an R-word letter did hurt more than usual. Well, it didn’t hurt per se, it just made me question my direction. You see, I’m starting to get nervous. I can see in my work part of the direction I want to go and then it slips away. I taste it and then it dissolves. I set out on a certain path with a painting and end up at a different destination.

I read an anonymous truism the other day: “I thought painting was easy, until I tried it.” Well, I am going add something to that (kids, cover your ears);

Painting is fucking hard!

That said, in yesterday’s plein air painting session I felt good. What good felt like was noticing that I was tight in my brushwork and intentionally loosening up, seeing some marks that needed working into the background and working them in, checking my values against reality and seeing them match. Then again, I still sometimes feel like I am painting pretty little pictures, which is not what I want to do.

So just as I and every artist will receive the occasional R-word letter, I will stumble along my path towards a destination which may always seem barely within reach. That’s art, and that’s the path of the artist.

So R-word me, see if I care! (I will, I’m human).

In the field at Holland Point Park
In the field at Holland Point Park

Transferring Methodology

My husband, Andrew Bartley and I recently had the privilege of attending an Alla Prima Portrait Painting workshop with Teresa Oaxaca at the Whidbey Island Fine Art Studio. Our focus of late has been on plein air landscape painting, so attending a portrait workshop was a bit of a sideways jaunt. I’ve always loved Teresa’s unique and beautiful work so when I saw an ad for the workshop one evening, and having a few glasses of wine in me, I exclaimed to my also-web-browsing husband across the room: “TERESA OAXACA IS DOING A PORTRAIT WORKSHOP ON WHIDBEY IN JUNE, WE SHOULD GO!” (All caps does indicate shouting and/or excitement). You see, these wonderful workshops and artists usually offer their work/classes further away from our nest, mostly the southwest US or further east. Having one close by was very exciting. Andrew’s response was: “LET’S DO IT!”.

And there we were a few months later, on lovely Whidbey island amidst a familiar rampant bunny population (the university where I work also had the bunny “issue” until they decided a cull was in order) and 14 other eager students, watching and learning from the extremely skilled beauty herself, Teresa. The 4 day workshop was intense sessions of demonstration from Teresa and our attempts to follow her method to a successful process and end piece. I personally experienced a progressive strengthening of understanding and results as the days and exercises went by and Andrew was also very happy with his experience and results. While he rediscovered his native painting style utilizing Teresa’s methods, I learned several key things:

  • Look more, paint less
    • I can’t emphasize this enough. Slowing down and spending time looking at your subject and considering the whole composition is critical for me. I tend to push work out, hoping that the next one will be better. Now, I promise myself to slow down and really look, really see, really paint what I want to be there.
  • Keep your colours clean on the palette and on your brushes
    • Which means I need more brushes! and smaller ones too – I tend to order large brushes!)
  • Thick over thin
  • Maintain a basic process: block it in, lay down the colour, finish
    • Avoid “drawing” in the blocking in step – and never, ever outline
  • Increase harmony by incorporating reflective colour from the environment and clothing into the portrait itself
  • Include a balance of warm and cool colours
    • This is something I need to do/research more, as I don’t seem to get it
  • Make it POP!
    • Include clean bold colours as way to create interest
  • Avoid too many hard edges because it makes the eye jump around the painting
  • Soften edges often
Brandy, oil, 16"x20"
Brandy, oil, 16″x20″

When we returned home, we didn’t want to stop learning so on our single day left of time off, we went plein air painting. We both more or less used the same process of blocking in, laying in colour and finishing, but this time on landscape pieces. I found it to be a very calming and satisfying process. Whereas before I’d be in a rush to get things to the point of really seeing where the painting was going (which could take up most of the time in the session), the block-in step gives you a fast and strong impression of composition, tonal values and focal point. When that is all set, I found myself way more relaxed, knowing that I simply needed to capture the light, colour and values of the scene in front of me. It allowed me to incorporate soft edges and focus on the lights and the darks which would draw the eye in.

Summer on the Gorge, plein air oil, 8"x10"
Summer on the Gorge, plein air oil, 8″x10″

Not only did the workshop help us grow our skill and knowledge of portrait painting, it also helped move our landscape work to another level. All I need now is more time to paint!

To that end, we have a camping and painting trip planned this summer. I can’t wait!