Here’s a new painting I’ll be showing at High Hand Gallery in Loomis, California, starting in September. It’s called “Into the Blue.” I had the opportunity to paint last spring at Oest-Clementine Preserve, one of the nature preserves in the Sierra Nevada foothills owned and maintained by Placer Land Trust. PLT sponsored a series of plein air events at their preserves. This one is outside of Auburn, California, near the American River. (If you know the area, Lake Clementine is in the gap between the second and third ridge in the painting, and the Foresthill Bridge is offstage right about, oh, maybe half a mile.)
One of the things I like to try to portray in my work is distance. Where I live in Sacramento, we like to say that on clear days you can see the Sierras. Montana may call itself Big Sky Country, but the vistas here are huge as well. So when I saw this view at Oest-Clementine, I had to paint it. Ridge after ridge after ridge disappearing into the atmospheric perspective.
I look forward to going back next year to Oest-Clementine, and trying again with some other composition.
Into the Blue will be on display at Artstock 2012 at High Hand Gallery through October 21. As always, I will donate a percentage of the sale price to Placer Land Trust.
Recently, someone asked me “What inspires you to paint en plein air?”
She was asking for a quote for some publicity, so of course I responded right away. But it got me thinking: what does inspire me to paint outdoors?
The short answer is: I like to be outdoors. I’ve been a birdwatcher longer than I’ve been a painter, and part of what I enjoy is bringing my binoculars along, setting my pochade up in a shady spot, and seeing who happens by. Though I admit, you have to be so focused when you paint—all that fleeting light and everything—watching birds can be a distraction. But, on a Saturday in the Sierra foothills, that didn’t stop me from noticing how, around 11:00, all the hawks took to the air.
And then there’s the fact that you really can’t see accurate color detail from photos. Painters know that camera lenses cannot see the range of colors and values the human eye can: cameras get the darks OR the lights, not both. And that pesky white balance! Change the white balance setting, and all the colors change. How in the world can that be accurate? So if you wanna do landscapes, you gotta go outside.
The long answer is that I love being in the moment, in the landscape. All of these are elements inspire my work: the feel of the humidity in the air, the sounds of hawks and swallows, the scent of the pine trees or the dried grasses. So often our days are taken over by our electronic devices and our automobiles, we forget to look around us. I love immersing myself in the day and trying to portray it with paint.
One of my favorite science fiction short stories (this really is related!) is called “The Light of Other Days,” written in 1966 by Bob Shaw. The device in the story was what the author called “slow glass”: a special glass that allowed light to pass through it only very slowly, so that the viewer looking through the glass would see what had happened years before. The story involves a couple shopping for a piece of slow glass to hang in their living room, a kind of moving painting of the mountains through the seasons. (In reality nowadays, I’ve seen HD TVs at hotels do something similar: but they’re displaying videotaped scenes of island paradises or mountain snowfall. Not quite the same.)
Well, I’ve always wanted my paintings to be a kind of slow glass: I want them to portray a morning, or an afternoon, and give the viewer the echo of actually being there. That humidity I spoke of, or the scent of the pines, or the heat, or the sound of the surf. That feel of a place is much harder to capture than even the fleeting colors of the shadows, and I don’t succeed every time. But that’s what inspires me, and that’s what I’m striving for.
What do you look for in a landscape painting? If you’re a painter, what inspires you?
Plein air painting is a race against time. Painters usually have about a two-hour window in which to complete their painting*. After that, the light has changed and it’s best to put the first painting away and start a new one. To complete their paintings within that window, most painters work fairly small: anywhere from 6” by 6” to 12 x 16. (There are, of course, exceptions. On foggy or overcast days, the light stays constant longer. And some painters do work larger. I’ve no idea how they do it.)
But what if you want to work larger?
Many artists I know, including myself, do small-scale studies outdoors, often several at one location, and then come into their studios to paint larger works. I often do work small, because it’s faster and because, in this economy, the smaller pieces sell better. But my heart wants to paint larger.
Working larger has its own set of challenges. Things you could indicate in a small piece with just a brushstroke need modeling of light and shadow. Perspective becomes more important in a larger piece: are all elements oriented to the horizon (or false horizons) properly? Details become far more important.
And then there’s the mechanics of working larger: bigger easel, larger brushes, larger canvas, more paint. The amount of paint you need to mix for a small painting is very different from the amount you need for a big piece. I have to stop and ask myself before I start putting that paint on the canvas if I’ve mixed enough for the area I’m going to work on. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes not. (This is an advantage of using a limited color palette: it’s easier to recreate color mixtures when you only have a few choices to start with.)
Finally, larger paintings just take more time than smaller ones do. For me, that’s the biggest challenge. The rest are overcome-able: it just takes work. I find it impossible to work on large paintings for short periods of time—I need 2- to 4-hour chunks, minimum. And that, in our too-busy 21st Century lives, can be very hard to find.
Do you like to work larger? Do you paint large in the studio or outdoors? If your a collector, do you prefer larger or smaller paintings?
*That is, unless they don’t care about capturing the actual scene they see before them.
One of the (many) treats of my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was the chance to see Gilbert Stuart’s “unfinished” portraits of George and Martha Washington. The president’s portrait is the one used for the dollar bill. It’s a very famous painting, which many people know already, but I hadn’t been to the MFA in over 20 years, so it was fresh for me. And the last time I saw it, I wasn’t a painter, so I could see if with fresh eyes this visit. And seeing the portraits in person is different than seeing them in reproduction.
Both paintings are unfinished, apparently because Martha Washington didn’t like them. Martha’s is the head only, the president’s portrait includes the head, the beginning of shoulders, and a start of a background in the upper 2/3 of the canvas. The heads are exquisite: lively, beautifully rendered, subtly detailed. One of the little signs at the MFA says that Stuart captured those subtle, lively colors in the skin tones by glazing very thin layers of paint. So the heads in these paintings are virtually complete.
And the rest of the canvas is blank. A halo of dark around Martha’s head, and the beginning of a background in the 2/3s of the piece around George, both painted in a burnt umber-ish color, and after that—blank. Stuart knew what he wanted to do. Martha’s face is off-center. But there are no sketch marks, no blocking in, no marks of any kind. Just what appear to be stains on one of the canvases.
Wikipedia says this was Stuart’s frequent practice. I’m no expert (and certainly not of portraits)—but that blank canvas speaks volumes to me about the confidence Stuart had to complete these paintings: to eventually fill in the clothing, the backgrounds, to keep proportions and light-and-shadow consistent, to make the paintings seem like one complete whole and not like bits stuck together. I know some painters today who work that way, but I was taught to fill in the entire canvas, to bring all the areas of the canvas to completion together, so they will all hang together as a single painting.
There’s another benefit to working this way. Stuart could give his clients an idea what the finished portrait would look like without spending the time or paint on the completed work before the client decided they wanted to keep them. I have no idea if that’s what Stuart was actually doing—he was apparently rather impulsive—but still. Who knows?
If you’re an artist—how do you work a painting? Do you work the entire canvas as a whole, or do you finish the focal point first, then complete the rest?
I recently had the chance to spend two afternoons at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (An admission is good for two visits within 10 days.) I was visiting Massachusetts for a cousin’s wedding, and decided to indulge. I know museums can foster a strange perception of art—that good art should be in museums, not in homes—but I love them. Whenever I travel somewhere, I seek out the local art museum to see what I can learn.
That visit—and thinking about this blog post—got me thinking about the role of museums in today’s culture. I’ll probably post more about that in the future. But for now, some first thoughts:
An art museum can show you want good art can look like*, and what to look for in art. Think of Sargent’s “masterful” brushstrokes—everyone call them that—or Monet’s use of color or the energy behind Joan Mitchell abstracts or Jackson Pollock drip paintings. Museums can be repositories of culture, from ancient Greek ceramics to Franz Bischoff’s paintings on porcelain vases. And they can educate you on the history of art or of a country. One of my biggest surprises at my visit came when I recognized the name of an American painter I’d first heard of only a week or two before—on Antiques Roadshow. After that, I started seeing other things by artists or companies I’d seen on the Roadshow: a giant ceramic jug made by a former slave named Dave; fine early American furniture, revolutionary period silver (this is Boston!). And then there was the Tiffany stained glass and East Asian Buddhas.
So, as a first impression, art museums can give you an idea of some of the things a culture values: the kind of artwork, furniture, jewelry, porcelain. They can teach you about taste and style and perceptions in other eras, other places, before photography or even lithography made it possible to reproduce images inexpensively. Gilbert Stuart, for example, is said to have made many portraits of George Washington from the one that was used for the dollar bill, the “unfinished” portrait.
And, for an artist, if you look closely, you can learn a bit about how other artists tackled the subject matter that challenges you. The advice to young writers is to “read everything.” I’d say the same for painters and sculptors and jewelers: look at everything. Learn what’s been done before, learn from the best.
And I can’t forget the goslings.
The second day I visited, I walked for a bit along the Fenway behind the museum, where I encountered this family of geese. They had decided to take a nap in the middle of the sidewalk. I’ve no idea why. They all woke up a few minutes later, but were still on the sidewalk when I left.
Do you visit art museums? What do you like or dislike about them?
(*) except they are vested in modernist art, too—more on that in a future post.