A friend’s comment about a painting she considered oveworked was that she needed “more practice in spontaneity”. It reminded me of “appearing effortless”, how what a painting looks like doesn’t necessarily reflect what went into its making.
It wants to look freely created without struggle or second-guessing, not laboured and repainted and rethought and reworked, but that’s not to say it was. Nor does it reflect all the other paintings that went before it.
Sponteniety does increase with practice, with having stronger muscle memory (aka practice), with a larger repertoire of marks and mediums (aka choices) to draw (pun intended) from.
I’m sure that somewhere someone has defined to the nth what constitutes plein-air painting and what’s sketching, but unless you’re in a plein-air competition, does it matter? I’m reminded of that Monet quote:
“Whether my cathedral views, my views of London and other canvases are painted from life or not is nobody’s business and of no importance whatsoever.”*
“On-location information gathering” is rather more of a mouthful than “plein-air painting”, but it’s a more accurate description of what I’m thinking and doing. The enjoyment of sitting outside, the potential of some paint and paper, the slowing down to look and to translate to paper, that’s what is most important for me. It’s simultaneously stimulating and relaxing.
I’m not focused on end results (though getting a piece I like is indeed satisfying) nor on getting everything into one perfect painting. It’s about slowing down to focus on the moment and a slice of whatever place I’m in, spending time looking and enjoying and selecting and mark making and playing with colour (or sometimes monochrome). Sometimes I call it painting, sometimes sketching, sometimes drawing. Sometimes I call it taking my sketchbook for a walk. Mostly I just call it having fun.
What do I use? At the moment it’s A3 watercolour paper (350gsm) carried in a plastic folder that’s vaguely showerproof, a couple of big clips to stop a sheet from flapping in the wind (there are usually rocks to hold it down if I put it to one side while it’s still wet), my biggest watercolour set (because I’m enjoying all the colours and learning their properties), a pencil box with acrylic inks (Payne’s grey and white are a constant, the other colours vary but often a green or yellow) and a few coloured pencils. Plus a bottle with water, a container with a lid for brush water, a flat brush and a rigger that fit into the watercolour set, paper towel, and ginger biscuits.
Knowing when to stop isn’t only an in-studio problem. I really liked this painting once I added the sea and nearly stopped at this point. But because it’s a point at which I often stop, I decided to push past it and add colour.
This is where I ended up. And, no, I don’t like it as much, but I am still pleased I pursued it (because if you always stop at the same point, things never develop) and it’s generated ideas for next time.
At one point, I had a four-legged painting companion who wasn’t a sheep:
*Quoted in: Monet’s Years at Giverny, Metropolitan Museum of Art, p28
The last three days have seen us (the American artists on an art retreat on Skye and me) sketching on the Quiraing, Staffin beach, and Eilean Donan Castle. Shades of green from deep blue-green to improbably intense yellow-sap green (which I mentally think of as radioactive green). It’s not only been sunny enough to dig out the sunblock, but I even ended up looking for a shady spot yesterday at the castle.
My thanks to Michael Chesley Johnson for the pastel demo of rocks at Duntulm. It’s so intriguing, mesmerising, inspiring to see familiar landscape through the eyes of artists seeing it for the first time.
Painted on location at Sligachan with a group of painters on an art retreat today. When we arrived, the peaks were hiding behind cloud, but they revealed themselves in the afternoon. The river was really low after all this dry weather, so I started at a spot under the modern bridge out of the breeze. The view of the underneath of the bridge and its reflection was tempting, but I decided to save that geometric abstract for another day and stick with my intended focus, the old bridge. Later I moved upstream to amongst beautiful water-polished rocks. (Materials: Payne’s grey and a yellow acrylic ink, watercolour, on 350g paper.)
Today was one of those perfect Skye days — blue sky, bright sunshine, a bit of breeze to keep you cool and blow any midges away. It included a Uig woodland wandering followed by watercolour and ink wondering.
One of the joys of having workshop participants who’re really enjoying using watercolours is that it motivates, inspires and pushes me with my own use of watercolour. Reading around it’s been interesting how some artists are adamant that washbacks or cauliflowers represent incompetent technique, while others embrace it as part of mark-making potential or repertoire.
I’m definitely in the latter category, and love wet-into-wet watercolour, pushing pigment with water, happy accident-ing and intentional puddling. While, like any technique or effect, it can be overdone, I love the effect. More importantly, I enjoy doing it.
Yesterday I came across this quote in “Creative Landscape Painting” by Edward Betts (page 145) and it rang so true. The freedom of painting wet-into-wet is a mindset, and that’s why it’s so hard for some people to move from controlled wet-onto-dry watercolour and meticulous pencil drawings into “going with the flow”. You have to change your mindset as well as technique.
There are joys to be found in colour just for colour. Not for creating a finished painting, but for the delights of trying, exploring, feeling, seeing paint colours.
While there’s good reason to use a limited set of colours and getting to know these well, it also becomes a comfort zone. How often do you think outside the (colour) box?
At the weekend as a friend and I were doodling with the colours in my big watercolour set (one I put together from all the tubes of watercolour paint I have) she described them as “very much my colours”. I was taken aback as I thought there are lots of colours in there that aren’t my usual. But then she went on to list the colours she regards as staples that were missing, including Naples yellow, viridian, not to mention the lack of any kind of red (only magentas), and I realised that the colours were indeed subsets of my usuals, that there weren’t so much unexpected colours but more variations on favourites.
So yesterday I sat down with my Daniel Smith watercolour dot chart and tried with every single colour. Today I’m going to have another look at it and see where I might step further away from the box. Then I’m going to make a shopping list for July when I’m at Patchings Art Festival. Then I’m going to shorten the list.