Ever since I heard the story about Childe Hassam loading up his mule and going off into the desert of Eastern Oregon to paint, I've had this idea about plein air painting. Not the idea of going out with the mule (or the bottle of bourbon the artist was known to take along), but the romance of disappearing into the wilderness and returning with inspiration. It was something I knew one day I was going to do.
Of course, first I needed to figure out how to set up my new french easel. There were other things to figure out, too. Like packing supplies. Once, I took too many things. Then I didn't take enough. Did I want a chair or not? These things - while inconsequential now - seemed important at the time because I had this idea of what plein air painting was supposed to be. We often gravitate to ways of thinking about something without actually being attentive to what those thoughts are. Assumptions, which can be neither good nor bad, are part of daily life and get in the way of the things we actually could accomplish.
So my assumption was that if I were fully prepared I would be fully capable of producing a painting, and that all I needed was to feel in control over my environment.
Ironic, isn't it, when the idea behind plein air painting is to teach yourself about the landscape in an environment where you do not have a lot of control. After all, the traditions going back to oil paint in transportable tubes suggest that an accomplished artist can leave his studio and capture the light with a certain amount of flair. And it is like that - sort of. Now that I've survived a few set-up-take-downs in the wilds of a local state park I feel I can comment about plein air painting with some authority. Particularly about the greens. You might want to have a good understanding about mixing greens before you go out. A lot of greens. In fact, you might need more than raw sienna and ultramarine blue to do justice to all those greens. Or pick a place that doesn't have so many trees.
All kidding aside, Scott Christensen has a wonderful "musings" on his website, where he reminds artists of the goals in plein air painting. I admire Christensen's skill and because of that I take seriously what he has to say, so I have in my library the recommended books by Edgar Payne, Carlson and Hawthorne. But I needed more than a few excursions before I felt comfortable enough with the equipment, with the unique challenges posed by wind and sun and chipmunks, and with the overwhelming amount of ---well, nature out there -- before I could begin to find my rhythm. Before I wasn't so fatigued by the learning process that I could feel energized by the challenge.
Now I'm hooked. I've gotten past the awkward first date stage. I'm pretty handy at slinging the backpack and the easel and getting down the muddy riverbank without losing anything, including my cup of coffee. Sure, I've read advice from artists about what not to do but I still do it, partly because I want to find out why something doesn't work. And partly because I'm still so overwhelmed by the experience I forget the advice. But here are some things I won't forget - like remembering the sunscreen. And that Wet Ones are essential for cleaning the paint from your fingers.
You see, expectations are never a reflection of reality. They are either a wish or a fear. And either I am wishing that I can learn a new skill without risking miserable failure, or I am afraid that in failing I will negate everything I have already learned. But at 62 I've concluded that it doesn't matter what my outcome is, it only matters that I got up, got out, and hiked that distance with my easel and backpack and survived.
I've learned something new about landscape painting through this experience. Or at least about me outside painting the landscape. And yes, it has to do with all those greens.
The first few times I ventured out I was seeing paintings everywhere. This was so great, the cool morning air, nothing but the sound of birds and an occasional fish jumping out of the water. Who wouldn't find the idea of the artist painting in the wilderness romantic? And in my swooning I was forgetting some of the basic lessons of art making. I wasn't being fully attentive to what I was looking at - I was merely responding. I wasn't seeing the right value patterns. Yes, our brains are naturally hardwired to look for patterns, light against dark, and when I'm taking in an entire river bank, with the sky overhead, the willows and spring green grasses overflowing the bank and casting lovely reflections in the water - I'm seeing the big picture patterns. Or I'm zeroing in on the lacy tracings of the branches in a single bush. When I try to distill all that into the tiny space of my canvas, I'm overwhelmed by greens - or rather, by the same light plane values. And I struggle for the entire painting session trying to define value changes that aren't there.
So on my next excursion my intent will be to spend more time looking for subject matter that naturally presents interesting value changes. And to think about the 4 light planes and how I can use them effectively to interpret what I am seeing. I've realized that I can't start a painting the way I might start one in the studio, that I will need to find a new way in. Next time, I'll look for some shade. And I won't forget my hand mirror because for some reason I can't evaluate a painting's progress without seeing it in reverse and at a distance.
And I promise not to get intimidated when the critics arrive. Although I think they were more interested in handouts. Sorry guys, the chipmunks made off with everything.