PAIN-ting Lessons

I am psychic. My prediction of yesterday came true. More on that later in this post. A few thoughts first…

Let me make this clear, I am not an expert on plein air painting. But I am an expert on my experience of plein air painting. So I proceed with this blog knowing that what I say is inherently flawed and inadequate, that some artists will wonder what all the fuss is about, that some of my realizations are common knowledge and self-evident to a smarter person so what’s the big deal, and I’ve got a lot of gall to put myself out there. All true, all very true. Nevertheless, for whatever reason I began painting plein air more than 10 years ago, it is equally true that I have gained some experience and thoughts that might be useful

This sketchbook photo is a reminder —and a recommendation. Two years prior to painting plein air for the first time, I put away all of my art supplies and bought a sketchbook with large rings. This was to make it easy to open flat. At the hardware store, I bought a carpenter’s pencil, broad and flat; it won’t roll and it inhibits one from getting too detailed. The beautiful landscape is one thing to behold and, no matter how familiar you are with it, another thing to draw. I knew this instinctively, so I determined that before I would paint a single stroke, I would learn to draw the landscape, to quickly apprehend the forms, to edit on the fly, to practice not getting hung up on details but find the essence of the composition before me. I would go back to basics: pencil and paper. This sketchbook, and a series of perhaps ten more, accompanied me everywhere, every day, and I made it a habit to sketch everything I saw. After two years of this, the day finally came when I was sick of sketching and knew it was time to paint.

I rarely sketched after that, preferring to “sketch” with a brush directly on the canvas. Recently, circumstances and my own frustrations have reminded me of this simple, powerful discipline. As soon as I began carrying my sketchbook again and sketching the composition just prior to painting it, my paintings have improved. So, the recommendation is: sketch. Keep it an ongoing practice and don’t allow yourself to be fooled into thinking you don’t need to practice sketching anymore.

Easel Rider
There are so many kinds of easels. I think I’ve tried them all. The common French easel has an inherent flaw in the way it holds canvases. Very quickly and early on, I came up with a trick that I want to share: rubber bands. I use rubber bands and a couple of flat sticks to create a pressure mounting that holds your canvas in place and prevents it from slipping out when you are carrying the folded easel with the wet painting in place.

You will place the pressure mounts in the top and the bottom canvas “grooves”. Take a look at the photos. A stick is wrapped every couple of inches with a rubber band, then the prepared stick is inserted into the groove and held in place with more rubber bands. Set your canvas in place and tighten it down. Rather than the canvas relying on hard, unyielding wood, the rubber presses snugly against the canvas holding it firmly in place even when you are moving. You will need to replace the rubber bands after several weeks as it deteriorates.

Beware of Pretty…
I told you I was psychic. Yesterday I tried to be coy in my assessment about the boat painting and predicted that, if I were not humble, my experience told me that the next day would be a painting disaster. It tried to be coy but wasn’t really. I skirted the edges of humility only, and today I paid the price, fulfilling my own prediction.

Waking up rather late and with little energy, clearly burnt out on this crazy pace, I was led to the Carmel Mission near Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. It is only a few miles away. When I woke up, I saw the mission in my mind and took that to mean I should go there. I know enough now that this doesn’t mean that I will paint well in the places I am led to, but that I have, at least, something to learn.

You would think that painting something as quaint, picturesque as a California mission would be easy. However, what I learned today will definitely be added to my growing set of Lewis’ Laws: Be wary of picturesque scenes. I must emphasize, now that I look back over many experiences like this, be very wary! There is something almost diabolical about the seduction of these scenes. They are just too pat, to pretty. And, worse yet, they play on your weakness. They say, oh, I can sell this painting, everyone likes a mission painting. Don’t get me wrong, I like to sell as much as the next artist, but if that evil thought enters your mind you have gone down a bad path; you should back up, get out, and run.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t paint picturesque, postcard scenes, but they must be painted in a very different frame of mind than the usual scene. Forgive this example if it offends anyone, but I think it works to illustrate what I mean: if the scene can be compared to a very beautiful woman who also happens to have a brilliant mind, what would you paint? Only the obvious beauty? Of course not. You must also find a way to convey her intelligence, otherwise it’s just another painting of a pretty woman, and you’ve failed as an artist and become a hack.

I can see now that painting a postcard scene should be approached in the same manner. One must look beyond the obvious and find, and convey, the inner intelligence of the scene.

Having finished the painting of the mission, and failing to convey anything of its spirit, I scraped it off.

Posted via email from Robert Lewis’ Sketchbook

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