Many South Africans had the pleasure of a long weekend to tie in with Heritage Day on the 24th of September. I was one of them and it did not come too soon. The spring light and earlier mornings torment me with outdoor painting potential! An early riser by nature I am ready and out the door before the rest of my family. Fortunately with great weather and picturesque settings a good painting spot is often within walking distance too.
This past weekend I was in the lovely seaside village of Port Alfred. There are stunning beaches to paint with little disturbance from crowds of people if you are a bit shy of painting outdoors. My first stop was a little bay near Kelly's Beach.
This was a good opportunity to warn up and try my first painting for the day. The thing about plein air is that there is a tendency to tone down colours (values) due to the bright light. If you can use a umbrella to work under then do so as your painting may end up looking a trifle dark when viewed indoors. Since I was painting in early morning light I did not worry too much about this and I tend to have adapted to this issue.
I was happy to notice that I had company in the form of a little penguin. This fellow settled down to my left about fifteen metres away and warmed up in the sun. I am not sure of his attitude to painting, but he seemed unimpressed with my pedestrian activities. The poor thing's rest was later interrupted by a boy who tried to pick up the penguin. The lad received a painful peck on the lip and learnt a nasty lesson about wild animals. Let sunning penguins ... umm... sun themselves in peace!
One of the pleasures of outdoors painting is the occasional person who stops to chat. I know some artists get annoyed by this, but I enjoy it. If I am concentrating hard I may not even notice people watching, but when there is time for a break then we have a chat. It is fascinating how many people respond positively to art and take real pleasure in talking about something other than dreary news and politics.
I then moved to the Kelly's Beach carpark to overlook the beach for a different viewpoint. I liked the strong diagonals of the steps leading down to the beach, which made a nice lead-in to the scene. If possible I like to add a figures into the scene for scale and a touch of lively interest.
To capture a feeling or mood it is often necessary to jump right in and make a quick, bold start. So get the main shapes in with a large brush (no.6 or 8) and get shapes placed all over the board. Things change so quickly that one can lose a potential light effect or ideally placed figure if you do not react in time. Refinements can come later.
Another lesson learnt is that you do not have to include everything. It is also okay to move an object if it improves composition. What you leave out can be just as important as what you leave in. Make decisions first off and then go for it. It the scene still does not work then try another position.
It can be difficult to pull off a painting outdoors. The object must never be to produce a gallery piece or there will always be frustration. Outdoor painting is a great teacher. Lessons learnt under pressure are seldom forgotten. They make us better studio artists as decisions about colour, values and composition become better developed.
An added plus is the pleasure of enjoying nature first hand. There is no way that a quick photograph will imprint itself on your mind quite like the keen observation of your artistic eye and senses. You will never see your surroundings better than when you are painting them.
Anymore long weekends coming up?
I have been reading Hawthorne on Painting recently. It is a collection of lessons and observations from Charles Webster Hawthorne. He was born in 1872 and later went on to found the Cape Cod School of Art in America. Hawthorne was also a gifted art teacher besides being an accomplished artist.
Although some readers may find the content to be old fashioned in style those who persist and consider the comments made in the book will be enriched with timeless advice. The aspect that I truly enjoy in these old books is that the artists seem to impart the very essence of painting instruction. Modern teachers may tend to give too much general advice, but the old master fills in the real nuggets of information. This may be apparent to more experienced artists while beginners may take out only what they are ready to receive? Is this not always the case though?
Here are a few extracts that stand out for me:
I would recommend this book for anyone looking for the missing link in there painting knowledge. There are no pictures, but just good advice.
There are times when the idea of making art seems pointless. Every artist, I believe, has this thought creep up now and then. This self defeating idea can befall anyone in whatever field they may pursue. Moments of reflection are good just so long as we do not let them turn into defeat. If we allow ourselves to feel sorry for ourselves then we are lost indeed. That then would really be pointless!
I know that at times we all can benefit from the example set by others. Motivation from the creative pursuits of others can spark action. What can be more inspirational than the endeavours of those who have faced huge obstacles and overcome them. Surely these people also felt daunted yet they too had to tackle mental and physical obstacles to achieve their goals.
Recently I read a wonderful book by Lewis Pugh called 21 Yaks And A Speedo. You may recall that Lewis Pugh achieved international fame for his record breaking swims in extreme conditions. This book takes 21 states of mind and illustrates them with Pugh's experiences in facing these extreme challenges. Potentially self-defeating thoughts are faced and overcome in ways that we all can emulate. It is a reminder that we can achieve our dreams through determination. We can also overcome daily obstacles to get over the mundane things that can sap our energy.
Lewis Pugh's book is a relatively short read at 143 pages, but for the type of message the author puts forward it was the perfect length. A quick yet powerful read that will inspire you. Yes I do admit that Lewis Pugh's South African link is great too. The fact that Pugh is an attorney who has taken time to pursue his passion is also a reminder that we can have more than the daily grind. We do not have to settle for ordinary.
So how does this relate to art and making a difference? Well on the face of it Lewis Pugh's extreme swimming may seem pointless too. However Pugh has dedicated his life to more than adventuring for personal pleasure. In order to find meaning in his activities Pugh has brought the message of climate change, environmental preservation and activism to a world stage.
The key I think is to find meaning in what we do. By energising our work or taking up a challenge that inspires others we can all make a difference. We can all support a cause, create something, spark thought and positive action in others. By being supportive of whatever helps our society we are making a difference.
For artists there is risk in putting our work out there yet we can take heart that every creative act is a positive action. Destruction of the environment and indeed dreams of better things is so easy to do. Let us not succumb to what is easy. Creative action is our true calling as human beings and it is how we grow. So thank you to people like Lewis Pugh who have faced the impossible to make a difference.
Thank you to the artists who risk to create. Your work is valued.
For more on Lewis Pugh and his achievements check out his TED talk:
There is an old legal term that goes along the lines of "The artisan promises the skill of his art". This of course means that the electrician or builder that you hire is expected to do a good job. This is taken for granted. I like to think that artists do not have to feel the pressure of regular artisans, but is this valid?
A collector does not have to purchase a painting. This is a can be a relief for artists as it means that there are no strings attached. You like or leave it - simple. However if sales means rental paid then there is pressure to sell. The message is clear then. If an artist wants to sell art then the art must be of a high standard. It is the implied promise.
Now I know that if a collector has no interest in beach scenes and wants a still life or an abstract work then no amount of quality will make a sale. Those issues aside what is most important for the artist in the long run?
To my mind a good chance of consistent success professionally means regular and disciplined work. Not very romantic is it? On the bright side if art is your passion then it is not much like drudgery at all. Sounds like bliss to me! Consistent, but varied work will result is much quicker progress. For example if I paint the same subject then each version must be sufficiently different to keep my interest. Also I do not like to paint in the studio every day. If I can vary the routine by painting outdoors or doing something else like preparing painting panels or framing then I can refresh my energy for painting the next day. On other occasions reading up on master artists, sketching or simply observing the clouds go by all become part of a process that is art. This is part of what collectors should expect and receive from the professional artist.
There is no substitute for trial and error over time. Yes putting in the hours will speed up the learning, but it still takes time. To this must be added the ability to take risks and make mistakes. Sometimes embarassing mistakes! But no one gets hurt - maybe a bruised ego, but we must move on quickly and learn from the experience. I find that many creative folk avoid painting due to fear of making a fools of themselves. Sometimes they fret over the cost of materials wasted on failed paintings. What a shame. Perhaps it is for the best, because making mistakes and absorbing the costs are part of the deal.
Part of the artist's promise is not to compromise on quality of materials, framing, packaging and all the other bits and pieces that go with the business. But first and foremost is having a work ethic filled with the joy of creating art. From this all else grows and it will be good. The artist's promise is fulfilled.
It may have something to do with springtime having arrived in the southern hemisphere. Extra light does seem to energise me! Painting outdoors is simply a joyful experience. Even when the results are not always as desired I get to learn from those mistakes. A lesson learned on the spot is a lesson remembered!
To be honest I am not a fan of painting in very windy conditions. We are spoilt for good weather, but even then it is possible to paint from a sheltered position. Painting from a window overlooking a scene is perfectly fine. Many great impressionists like Monet and Pissaro painted from their windows. The real difference to the painting is the immediacy of the response to the scene. There is not time to faff about - as they say. You have to get on with painting.
The second major plus is that you get to see so much more than with a photo. It is amazing how much a camera leaves out especially with shadow areas and the sky. The camera has to even out the scene so as not to over or underexpose parts of the scene. Your eye can however adapt to parts of the scene and therefore your ability to respond to these subtle colour and value changes is enhanced. This makes for a more interesting painting and exciting experience for the artist.
Many beginners struggle with painting colors like green and getting the true shape of trees correct is a nightmare. These aspects will improve greatly with outdoor observation and painting. When you truly see what is there with a discerning eye not only your art, but your appreciation for nature will grow too.
There are a lifetime's worth of lessons to be learnt with outdoor painting. Add this aspect to your painting from time to time and see if it works for you. Persist for a while since it is an adaption and the rewards will come. To encourage you, if you have not tried this before, I am including my Plein Air Painting notes for download here. The videos may be viewed on My Studio page.
I hope that all artists have a great outdoor experience - let me know how it goes! For collectors there is the added pleasure in knowing that your painting is a true artistic response to a scene - unique and filled with energy! Enjoy