Monday Motivator: The Purpose of Plein-Air Painting

“Remember, the purpose of working en plein air is to learn to see better – to note value [tone] relationships and colour nuances that you only can only see when painting from life. It’s wonderful to be able to bring this knowledge into your studio practice. Painting en plein air is also about the experience of being in the moment in your painting environment. What it’s not about is a brilliant result! Nice by-product but not the purpose of painting en plein air.”

Gail Sibley, Packing for a Plein Air Trip to PACE

Plein-air isn’t only about landscapes or cityscapes. It could be a drawing of your mug in a coffee shop, the chairs in a waiting room, the inside of a building, a flower pot … it’s anything and everything that’s not in your “comfort art-making spot”.

Why do it? For me it deepens what I notice about somewhere, slows my brain’s running about and focuses that energy into creating something on a page. I get to listen to the birds and bugs and sea. The results vary from intensely pleasing to uh-oh, usually somewhere inbetween. Even if everything I paint is a dud, it’s not like that doesn’t happen in my studio on occasion.

What am I aiming for when I’m painting on location? It varies, depending on what I feel like, what else I’ve been doing, and if it’s a new spot or a regular one. Sometimes I focus on a small detail in a landscape, sometimes it’s the overall scene. To paint a sense of it, not a photographic likeness. To explore pattern and texture, shape and colour. Shape conveyed by line done in ink or fluid watercolour (whereas in my studio I’ll “colour in” the shapes).

Tone or light/dark is rarely a focus for me until mid-way in a painting. I know it’s something I don’t see strongly, instead I get seduced by colour and texture, so I have learnt to stop to assess and adjust it rather than fight against this natural inclination. On location, I often don’t bother because I’m having to much fun in the moment.

Monday Motivator: Painting from Life vs Photos

Monday motivator art quotes

“I believe that I do not experience the world in the same way that a camera does; that the technical precision of a photographic view of the  world offers a seductive but basically false rendering, one which is based on an idea of the world as understandable, containable, defineable, precise, whereas my feeling is that the world is full of ambiguity, doubt, compromise and guesswork. … To work in a life situation is to directly experience this mobility of experience

… Further I believe that the creation of an artwork – the materials, surfaces, processes and attitudes is somehow analagous to the processes of perception so that the making of the thing becomes in some way an exploration or example of the partiality of our engagement with the subject/sitter. This whole terrain is to me the stuff of living perception; the interpretation and creation of our own version of the world — nearly all of which is absent from a photograph, so all that is lost before you even start.”

Alan McGowan, Art History News “BP Portrait Award” 17 July 2015

A photo is but a sliver of time, it’s not the beginning and end of what could be seen. Why would you let it dictate what you include in a painting. Please, a gazillion times over, never, ever give me the “but it was in the photo” reason for doing something in a painting. Use photos in a way that you can see say, “I thought I wanted to include it as an element in my painting which uses this photo as a starting point”.

Reference photo tree rings

Monday Motivator: Drawing Enjoys Not Being at the Centre of Things

“I think drawing enjoys not being at the centre of things. It is traditionally seen as preliminary, a generator, not an end in itself. It comes first, with something more ‘important’ to follow. Because it isn’t at the centre it becomes the weapon of choice to explore more elusive or marginalised areas of expression, experience and consciousness. Drawing is more portable, affordable, resilient, and direct.

“… It’s a practice, which means you have to practice, and do it again and again.”

Tania Kovats, “Why I Draw

What is it that stops us from creating a painting on a canvas with the same relaxed vigour that we’d start drawing with a pencil? When does the “this is a serious activity” switch get thrown?

Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh, 1890, pencil on paper, 13.4 cm x 8.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Monday Motivator: Brushwork and Colour Take Over the Role of Composition

“Monet chose … a rejection of the orderly perspectives of traditional landscape, by denying the viewer any imagined entry into the actual space depicted, and by emphasising the patterns of forms and colours within the painting itself. … the role of composition is increasingly taken over the brushwork and colour

“… the brushstrokes never establish a hierarchy of importance among the elements depicted; each is equally integral to the whole scene.”

John House, “Monet: Nature into Art“, pp54,76

In traditional Western landscape painting you are supposed to have a focal point and a path for the viewer’s eye into the painting leading towards this. You’re supposed to position this according to the Rule of Thirds, and the painting have a foreground, middle ground and distance. You would’t put the sea cliff so it fills the canvas, not to mention painting the shadow side of it. But fortunately Monet did.

The Manneporte (Etretat) by Claude Monet, 1883. Size: 65 x 81 cm. In the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Monday Motivator: Circular Growth

Watercolour rocks with blind embossing of pebble outlines

In a linear model of personal growth, you can only go up or down. By design, there are people below and above yourself. This model can be falsely reassuring, as it seems to offer a clear path to success. …

In a circular model of growth, nobody is more advanced than anyone. There is no “up” or “down.” People are at a particular point of their own, unique growth loop. Everyone only competes against one’s self. The circular model can be more daunting, as there is no predefined direction — you need to design your own personal growth process — but it can also be infinitely more rewarding

Anne-Laure Le Cunff, “Growth Loops“, Ness Labs

I have favourite subjects I come back, each time at a slightly different point, sometimes the medium I’m using, sometimes how widely or closely I’m focusing. In the past fortnight I’ve been exploring something new to me — blind embossing* on my A3 etching press. I’m using string to try to get a sense of the continuous ink line drawing I enjoy but it being indented into the paper itself. I know where it comes from, what the loops were leading me to this. Some of these are techniques/mediums, e.g. printmaking, and some are subject i.e. looking closer and closer at seashores down to individual pebbles. It’s not a conscious looping, it’s driven by curiosity and enjoyment in art techniques and materials.

(*Blind embossing is printing without ink, creating textures in damp paper.)

Watercolour rocks with blind embossing of pebble outlines
Watercolour and blind embossing

Here are a few of the loops that have taken me to the painting above.

2009: Copper etching plate from a workshop at the Highland Print Studio in Inverness, which introduced me to printmaking and presses

Copper etching plate done with hard ground with line and aquatint

2015: Monoprinting with feathers, after a workshop with Kate Downie

Feather Monoprint Leave Some Things Unsaid
Leave Some Things Unsaid. 10×10″ mounted size.

2018: Acrylic ink and continous line

Watercolour and ink drawing seashore

2019: Acrylic ink on wood panel

Wearing my new shoes that are supposed to not gt near wet paint!

2019: Watercolour

2020: Watercolour and ink pen

Drawing pebbles in an octopus sketchbook

2021: Acrylic on canvas

Painting of a row of beach pebbles
Row of Pebbles V. 50x20cm. Acrylic on canvas (background is an iridescent grey)

2021: Carved oil painting on a wood panel, with gold acrylic paint

2022: Watercolour in a concertina sketchbook

Pebbles painted in watercolour

Monday Motivator: Talent is Merely Stubborn Pursuit

When we see a painting, we see countless years of work that went into understanding color and line and form, the creation of our own aesthetic languages, not to mention the hours the painting may have taken to make, in an instant. Often the most effortless looking works took the most amount of years of learned “looseness” – a lightness of touch to which so many painters strive.

Talent is merely the stubborn pursuit of something amazing.

Kimberly Brooks, “What is Talent?

We see a painting in an instant, and aim expect to be able to jump in at this point of painterly achievement ourselves straight away, rather than looking at everything that’s gone before to get the artist to this particular painting.

Monet’s early paintings and his later paintings aren’t only far apart in time, but also in what he’s trying to achieve, what he’s no longer wanting to do. Compare his Green Wave from 1867 to how he painted the sea in The Manneporte (Étretat) from 1883, and how his final water lilies series of paintings are all about patterns of colour rather than subject and focal point.

Believing it takes talent means you believe you haven’t got the inherent thing that’ll make you good at it, so you give up before you even start. Besides the issue of whether talent exists or not, there’s also the issue of believing that something is worth doing only if you’re going to excel at it. This belies the tremendous enjoyment to be had while you’re learning to do something, in the discovering, exploring, playing and experimenting, to see what happens and what there is. This doesn’t disappear if you never get very far up the perceived ladder that stretches towards “good”.

Certainly there’s frustration when what you’d like to be doing isn’t yet achievable, that gap between what you see in your mind’s eye and what your fingers translate onto the paper. Instead of giving up, use this to figure out what you still need to learn, where the gaps are, and see if you can fill this.

Black ink and a big coarse brush

Monday Motivator: The Contact Point

“…your brush tip is the contact point between the internal and external world”

Jessica Hurd, “One Simple Step To Save Your Brush Tips

Brushes speak different languages, and at varying volumes. A rigger brush with long bristles can whisper across a sheet at pianissimo, but also build up a crescendo. A wide brush sweeps across a sheet with a ta-da-like trumpet call. A scraggly brush with unruly hairs scrawls like a spider, and can get you tangled up into a mess or weave a web to catch an idea. If a painting isn’t working, consider changing the brush(es) you’re using. If you’re in a rut, try using a brush or tool that’s been neglected.

Monday Motivator: Creativity is a Living Force

Creativity is a living force that flows through the maker and expresses itself in beauty that does not need to justify itself.

But in the Rationalism-drenched world there is a deep conditioning to the effect that everything must be explained, that beauty has no intrinsic value unless it can be intellectualised, that creatives need to pin down their work like butterflies on a board to provide a straightforward “this symbolises that” equation their intellectual superiors can grasp.

But this is a lie. That’s not how reality works, let alone the vaster reality creatives dwell in. You can fill a bucket to have a neatly defined portion of seawater to scrutinise, but only a fool would think this is a satisfying summation of the ocean.

Joumana Medlej, Zafimaniry Geometry, Caravanserai

The “hidden” meaning is that the creator enjoyed the challenge of making it, and that this is embedded in the piece too.

Monday Motivator: Ideas Find You

“For me play equals experiment equals learning equals exploring equals surprise equals creativity equals fun. Play gives you the freedom to create.

“Play for me is serious and hard work. You don’t have ideas so much as ideas find you. Then you are caught by them and have to follow them, just as it was at seven years old, but with the help of the technical skills I have learned over the years.”

Lotte Glob, “Three Questions to Lotte Glob“, Kilmorack Gallery 22/3/23

For me, the key to successful playing when painting or drawing is to approach it with lightheartedness, or nonchalance, to not be focused on producing a result (nevermind a “good” result) but on seeing what happens and where things lead. It’s not being frivolous, it’s playing.

In my Higham Hall workshop last week, in the last half hour of the last session, one of the participants decided to use up the leftover paint on her palette on a “scrap” sheet of paper that had various marks and colours on it, rather than discard the paint. The various colours and brushmarks that emerged then suggested flowers to her, and she painted a vase with a few strokes in the centre bottom. That’s the point at which I wandered into that corner of the studio and was intrigued.

A short story even shorter: after asking permission, I followed my impulse to blend together the colours in the negative space using a wide brush, then added a couple of squiggly lines with a rigger brush to define some yellow flowers. Then Helen added more blue as she finished up her paint. The result is this expressive flower painting which makes my heart soar with delight in its playfulness and sense of suggestion.

Monday Motivator: Realism is an Incautious Word

“Realism” is a blunt and incautious word, suggesting a spirit of documenting and depending on particulars, a literalistic subsurvience to the world of facts. I prefer generally to use the word “representation,” which is more neutral and denotes the interplay between motif and motive.

This re-presenting works itself out in the double dimension of space and color … Change the color, and the space reads differently; change the movement of the space and color has a different appearance and function.

Louis Finkelstein, “Wolf Kahn”, page 108

Motif = subject, theme, idea
Motive = reason for doing something

I enjoy exploring the point where there’s enough realism for a painting to read as a seascape, for example, without hesitation on the part of the viewer, which in turn then guides their interpretation of the sections painted more loosely.

When the in-house art critic and I were discussing the painting below, he said the composition was unusual in that it’s a third realistic sea but then two horizontal bands that aren’t. Is it a colourfield painting or representational? Does it all tie together without knowing the context, that is the yellow lichen covered seawall at CamusMor on Skye that I sat on so often? Does my having used the same colours across the painting connect them all? Does the composition create intrigue or block you out? When I look at it, I have the knowledge of all the other paintings that came before, the compositions that showed more context and the desire I have to explore more smaller parts of the landscapes and the patterns, colours .