I’ve dabbled in landscapes since I started painting a few years ago, but always from photographs and only in fits and starts since I really lacked the skills to make anything come of them. I only just started painting in plein air in May of this year and in 6 short months I’ve already reached a turning point in my process.
Painting in plein air, for me anyway, is not about producing a finished work. That’s nearly impossible, since one has about 2 hours of productive painting time before the light changes so much that further work would be counter-productive. So I always go home with what is in essence an underpainting. That’s the point where I might previously have tacked photos up on my studio walls and slavishly followed them to reach the end result. But recently I’m finding that photos are hindering my completion process in the studio. Filtering through a lens and then filtering again through a printer removes all the vibrant life of the place I painted. The broad gestures and simplification I was able to do on scene because of time constraints and the human visual field are suddenly at risk of being painted over in painstaking detail to match the photo. And the phenomenon most surprising to me, although it shouldn’t be since all the art technique texts talk about this over and over and over, is that my visual memory has improved so much since I started working in plein air that I can remember a scene that I painted yesterday, last week, or even a couple months ago. If not all the little details, I can at least remember the feeling I was after enough to convey it on canvas. I find myself pulling out the photos just to recall the basic shapes, and then putting them away again and working mostly from memory. Not being a slave to reality has been another revelation, as I’m starting to be able to change the painting to suit my aesthetic goal rather than simply creating a copy of the scene.
I still have trouble completing anything at all. There’s so much magic in the work produced on scene, and it’s hard to keep that life going back in the studio. It’s hard to know where the sweet spot is between gesture and detail. And choices abound. Do I finish the work I started? Do I preserve what I did on scene and start a new one that I’ll complete in more detail? Do I just consider it all practice and set it aside and go make more? It gets a little overwhelming, especially for this very tentative part-time artist. But it feels like progress.
Here’s what I brought home from a recent painting trip up the California coast. None of them are done. Or maybe they all are.