Something happened.

“…loose, spontaneous work is full of accident and inspiration. And great paintings done in this manner can never be duplicated – the painter himself doesn’t know how he got some of his effects. All he knows is that he was outdoors. Something happened to him. He saw differences; he felt the shadows and the textures – and put them down. Such painters see their pictures even before they begin them – as if in a dream. The subject hits them hard. When they finish, the picture is better than nature, but never as good as what was in their mind’s eye. They worry about it, of course – but they also know that you can never achieve perfection. There’s never an end to things.”

-Emile Gruppé

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Defining plein air.

En plein air is a french term generally used to describe painting outside. And that’s where the agreement on the definition of plein air ends. Read any artists trade magazine or technique book and you’ll find oodles of opinions on what does and does not constitute a plein air painting. Some say that the entire work has to be done outside, on the scene. Others say it’s fine to finish it in the studio. Some say photographs make fine reference material. Others say it must all be done from visual memory. I have to wonder if anyone other than the artists have any idea that all this arguing is going on, or if they even care.

For the most part I find myself in the middle ground. I think plein air can refer to a painting completed entirely on scene, or one started on scene and finished in the studio. If an artist wants to use photos, they should use photos, and if they don’t want to use photos, they shouldn’t use photos, and can we all please stop being so judgmental about the use of photos for goodness sakes. There are times when the definition of plein air matters more than usual, such as in plein air competitions and festivals. In that case, artists are all working under the same time constraints, trying to create and finish as many plein air paintings as they can by the deadline, and there’s usually a competition component to the group show. If an artists snaps a photo and then heads back to their hotel room to paint all day, I think in that case it’s perfectly ok to argue over the definition of plein air.

Finishing a painting entirely on location is incredibly difficult. Maybe pursuit of recognition for the accomplishment is why artists argue about the definition. After about 3 hours the light is too different to continue, except for night scenes and even then anything beyond 3 hours gets a bit tedious anyway. Being able to adequately represent a scene in just those 3 hours, with all the challenges of working with wet oil paint, is still my holy grail. Maybe because my usual way of working is so different. I tend to work on my paintings for hours and hours in the studio, sometimes giving them a complete overhaul. Both methods have their merits, and I think certain subjects are better suited to different ways of working. But with every start, my goal is to finish right then and there.

On a recent painting trip to Carpenteria I started five paintings. I’m happy with all five starts, and I’ll finish all of them eventually. One though, I actually finished on scene. The very first time I’ve ever done it. In just 3 hours I was so happy with my painting that I planned on posting it as-is. It was a cold and blustery day on the beach and I hunted down a safe spot to stash my wet painting while I packed up… and when I picked it up I saw a fine dusting of sand over the entire surface. Doesn’t it just figure. I let it dry to see how deeply embedded it was, and it’s definitely not coming off without damaging the entire work. So it’s staying. I’ll call it Added-Value. Character. Atmosphere. Doesn’t much matter as long as I get to call it done.

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…now somebody please take this paintbrush out of my hand because I’m just itching to add a couple highlights here and there…

#keeppainting

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I used to take workshops at a wonderful art gallery in Lodi, and after taking some on pastel and watercolor and still life and such, about a year and a half ago I took a week-long workshop on plein air painting with John Cosby. I hadn’t really done much plein air painting before. Some failed attempts, not really knowing where to start, and some painting-from-photographs in the studio to see if I could do it at all. Cosby turned out to be my best and my last teacher. His advice at the end of the workshop: stop taking so many workshops, and paint for two weeks straight. I did both of those things, since luckily I was scheduled for a two-week road-trip right after the workshop and I made it a point to stop and paint every day along the way. I didn’t take another workshop, until last week, when I took another workshop with John Cosby.

Cosby is the best painting teacher I’ve ever had. Have you ever noticed that most artists will stop talking when they start painting? Some say this has to do with artistic and verbal skills coming from two different parts of the brain. In any case, Cosby can explain everything he’s doing, the entire way through a demo. He can help any student, regardless of their level, and he can critique anyone’s work in a useful and meaningful manner, and he does it in a way that’s relentlessly kind. If he taught more workshops, or I should say, if I could afford to follow him around the country taking all his workshops, I’d take them all. For now, I just know that I’ll at least repeat his annual Fall workshop here in SoCal.

I had signed up for this workshop before the accident. In fact my deposit was due pretty much the day I ended up in the hospital. I wondered if I would still be able to do it. I wondered if I would be able to walk by then. Would I be able to stand all day? Would I be able to see? Would I be in pain? The day before the workshop I came down with a cold, my first since the accident, and the weather went a little nutso and gave us hot, humid, still days, even right on the coastline. We were all being seared by the sun and dripping in sweat as we worked and my head felt like it was in a vice. But for the thrill of being able to paint all day every day with my favorite teacher, it would have been miserable. But I could walk. I could stand all day. I could see. And I wasn’t in pain. My teacher and some of my classmates were kindof fascinated by my accident and recovery and we talked about it a lot. At the end of the workshop Cosby said to me “I don’t know how you did it, after what you’ve been through. Even at the end of the first day I was dying.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I also went for a run every night after class. It’s training and consistency that keep me strong and pain-free. As with art. I’m going to keep running, riding, and training, and I’m going to keep painting.

Sold.

My first plein air painting festival was in downtown LA last year. The fact that downtown is so familiar, and the organizers were so welcoming, and that it was the inaugural of that particular festival made it a nice easy introduction to the sport. I put one painting in the show just to have it in the show, but didn’t try to sell it. Having that event under my belt, and having recently attended the Mendocino Open Paint Out (just to see what it was about, not as a registered artist), helped prepare me to participate in Plein Air at the Lost Coast last week.

The event was held in Shelter Cove, a tiny seaside town in southern Humboldt County. The closest “civilization” was a strange, unruly little 101 rest stop called Garberville. That’s where I stayed, trading a 40 minute winding mountainous drive for a luxury hotel at motel 6 prices. Garberville was full to the brim with homeless hippie kids and uncultured rednecks, who somehow coexist in an addled haze of various forms of intoxication. I am never the type to be intimidated by a strange town. I’ll go for walks with Otter and go for runs at night and do pretty much everything I usually do, with a little bit of added wandering. And I will paint anywhere, anytime. But Garberville gave me the willies, and I stuck pretty close to my hotel when I returned to town each night. On one of my many trips over the winding mountain road to and from Shelter Cove I gave a ride to some rough hippie hitchhikers and when I mentioned I was staying in Garberville one of them exclaimed “OH MAN isn’t that a GREAT town?” So I guess it’s all in your perspective.

Shelter Cove is a strange place too. It has a Edward Hopper vibe to it, if Hopper was stuck in 1985, with lots of lonely, bland structures and seemingly fewer people than all those structures would call for. The homes were strange and it felt like they all stuck out like sore thumbs. It was impossible to find a view of the coast without structures in it, such as the unimpeded views you might find in Big Sur or San Simeon. And I’m sure this is unusual, but the weather was oddly sunny and still for the entire festival. Coupled with it being hard to get to, it’s not a place I would choose to return to and paint, without the incentive of the festival. Hopefully nobody takes offense to that, because to each artist their own scene and this one just doesn’t sing my siren song the way San Simeon does.

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On one of the festival days I took advantage of an amazing opportunity given to 10 of the participating artists, to paint at a local monastery nestled in the redwoods on the Mendocino/Humboldt County line. It was an incredible place, in both architecture and scenery. Art and design had been considered in every detail, right down to the way our lunch was laid out for us by the nuns who run the monastery. It was all very spare and minimalist, and integrated with its surroundings, an aesthetic breath of fresh air. My painting spot down by the river was so peaceful that I was joined for a time by a grazing deer. And also a few squirrels who kept hurling acorns at me. Little messages from God perhaps.

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I start many plein air paintings, but finish few. Having a looming deadline for the final show though was fantastic motivation to get a few done. On the night before the deadline I stayed up until 4:30am finishing four that I had started. When I tried to turn them in the next day I learned we could only hang three so I took out the weakest link, and then went back to my hotel for a nap before the show.

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When I pulled up to the community clubhouse that evening it was so packed one could hardly move around in the space. I heard later that the attendance was around 220! I found where my art was hanging, and then took a spin around the space to see all the other art. By the time I made it back to my paintings, I had my first red dot. My first sale ever to someone other than my friends or family. Another toodle around the space, some snacks, some chatting, and I returned to find my second red dot. At the end of the evening I made arrangements with a new friend to bring my remaining piece over to Garberville the next day, to save me a couple trips over the mountain. She texted me in the morning to tell me I had sold it. Three pieces hung. Three pieces sold. Granted, I sold them at my friend rates (more on pricing in a coming post), but I’m just happy that they’re living with people who obviously love them and want them. Selling one was a milestone. Selling all three gave me some much needed validation and motivation to continue.

The second annual Los Angeles Plein Air Festival starts tomorrow, and this time I’m approaching it with a whole new perspective on what I’m capable of.

Better late than never.

I didn’t feel like doing much art over the winter, but I very slowly picked away at a new and challenging pastel, doing just a few lines and shades on each infrequent trip to my studio and then letting myself get distracted by other things. Then around the end of February I started to pull it all together. I worked on it intensely for several days and on the last day of the month I added what I thought might be the last touches, but didn’t I blend them in and left a few highlights and edges unresolved. When I feel like I’m done with a piece I like to sleep on it for a night and I was thinking it would be nice to finish it on the first day of a new month, to hopefully kick off a more productive Spring. March 1st was a Sunday like any other, full of chores and errands and a nice long, challenging bike ride. Before I left to go grocerying I told Greg that as soon as I got home I was going straight out to my studio to finish that pastel.

I wouldn’t make it home for 23 days.

I don’t remember the accident itself, I only remember the moments leading up to it and watching all the cars in front of me losing control in the rain and a strange feeling of calm as though I knew everything would be ok. Everything is ok inasmuch as I’m alive, but rather than spending the Spring on an artistic bender, I’ve spent it enduring the wonders and horrors of modern medicine, in various ICU’s, operating rooms, doctor’s offices, and labs. When I finally came home on March 23rd, I was beaten up, weak, in constant and intense mind-numbing pain, and confined to hopping around on one leg with a walker. My studio felt like the moon, and recovery felt like a distant and foreign idea. I remember on one of my first days at home Greg forgot to let studiocat out before he went to work, and he and I just looked at each other all day across the deck, through the windows of our respective jails.

Bones are simple things. By six weeks they’ve calloused over and they want movement. My orthopedist let me start walking at 5 and a half post-op, and after that point my physical recovery has been much faster. Walking, getting out to my studio, and sitting upright are less of a problem now. But a fracture to my temporal bone caused damage to my 7th facial nerve, which means the left side of my face is paralyzed, which means my left eye doesn’t close on its own, which means I have to keep it all lubed up with an ointment that makes it cloudy but will ironically preserve my vision in the long run. Nerve damage is not simple like bones, and if a doctor tells you you’re going to be “just fine” you should probably find another doctor. Statistically, medically, there is no way for anyone to know for sure whether I will recover, or recover fully. If I do recover, it will likely take 6 months to a year. But I already see little signs of muscle movement and recovery, which gives me hope that I will be one of the lucky ones, and I know I’ll be forever appreciative of the littlest things like being able to drink out of a regular cup without a straw. In the meantime, my vision is shot. I have the choice of a left eye that’s blurry or taped shut, and both options make everything difficult, especially art.

A few days ago I wobbled out to my studio and scraped all the old paint off my palette and went to work on an old, unresolved landscape to test the waters. The kind of expressionist painting I’m after doesn’t require good eyesight, in fact the opposite is sometimes a benefit. But my pastels are another story, so I started a new piece to find out if I can see well enough for the level of detail I like. So far so good, so I went back to that original pastel and I went over the notes I made on that last night, to remind myself what my finishing touches were going to be, and I looked at the photos I took of the work in progress in the last few days of February, and I studied it and considered it and worried over it.

And then I finished it.

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Incomplete progress.

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.

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