I’m at Plein Air Brandywine Valley (PABV) this week. Torrential rain was forecasted starting at midday, so I took the unusual step of leaving to paint before dawn. I intended to blog in the afternoon. Of course, I didn’t get back to my billet until 7 PM, which is why you’re reading this so late.
I had the opportunity to test a favorite hypothesis of mine: that location doesn’t matter as much as subject and style. I know painters who jealously guard their ‘special’ painting locations. I’ve always done the opposite. No two painters look at things the same way, and various paintings of the same site will all come out radically different.
Same subject, by Lisa BurgerLentz. Note the raindrops; we were chased away around noon.
PABV provides us with choices of venues at which to paint every day, but we’re required to do the bulk of our work at one of these assigned venues. That allows us to visit properties we’d otherwise not have access to. Equally important, it lets them bring us lunch every day.
Today, we were spoiled for choice, with five options. Only a few painters joined us at Kirkwood Preserve. It’s a lovely, rugged patch of fallow fields and old trees, but fearing an imminent washout, most of us stayed close to our cars. That meant that four of us chose to paint along the same sightline: Nancy Granda, Lisa BurgerLentz, Bobbi Heath, and me.
Same subject, by Nancy Granda
Nancy, Lisa and Bobbi all agreed to let me share their paintings to demonstrate my point. Four paintings could not be more similar in subject outside a sip-and-paint, and yet they are very different. Even thought they’re all roughly the same composition, they each have their own tonal range, level of abstraction, and brush or knife work.
I was once next to Alison Hill at an auction preview when a client stopped to look at our work. She was conflicted. “I love her style, but I prefer your subject matter,” she told me. I asked her which was more important to her. “Both,” she responded. I think she’s very typical of the knowledgeable art connoisseur, who responds both with the head and the heart.
Same subject, by Bobbi Heath
I’d painted rocks and surf, which are a passion of mine. But she didn’t know exactly where those rocks were, nor did she care. It was the interplay of water and stone that attracted her. I know how to get to Raven’s Nest in Schoodic, a spot that is intentionally somewhat concealed. It isn’t promoted by the National Park Service because it’s dangerous. But I’m happy to tell you, unless I think there’s a chance you’ll slip and kill yourself. Raven’s Nest is stunning, but a painting of it isn’t going to be any better than any other well-composed painting of rocks and surf.
With the exception of Paris, no other site is more closely associated with the birth of impressionism than Argenteuil, wrote art historian Paul Hayes Tucker in Impressionists at Argenteuil. Claude Monet (who lived there for a time) was joined by other avant-garde painters, including Eugene Boudin, Gustave Caillebotte, Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. These painters were working in roughly the same style, painting the same subjects, and overlapping in the same time period. Yet nobody finds their work redundant today.
We learn from studying our peers and the painters who’ve gone before us.
Victoria Street, oil on linen, 16×20, by Carol L. Douglas
Bruce McMillan emailed me last week. “Just in case you feel you’re painting a lot, in 1911, from early August to late September on Monhegan, Robert Henri painted 300 paintings, most of them on 12×15 wooden boards, his last major foray into marine art.”
I churned out fifteen largish canvases in thirteen days during my Parrsboro residency and wondered if I was sacrificing quality for quantity. But I’m familiar with Henri’s marine paintings; they’re simple, monumental and brilliant. Bruce’s reassurance came at exactly the right time.
Once we’re done with art classes, we learn mostly from observing other artists. When we see something that we admire, we want to incorporate the essence of that idea into our work. It’s not stealing; it’s how all art develops.
Miss Margaret, oil on canvasboard, 8×10, by Carol L. Douglas. Maggie was my roommate for two weeks.
A writer told me recently, “you can rewrite that ending eight times and it won’t necessarily be better; you’ll just have eight different endings.” At least with the written word, they’re separate. In alla prima painting, those previous iterations lie there in the murk and muddy up the top layers.
I’d never heard of Tom Forrestall before this current trip. He’s sometimes called the Canadian Andrew Wyeth because of the precision of his egg tempera technique. But beneath that is a light, quirky vision. It’s magical realism unencumbered with social commentary. Can this kind of ruthless observation be learned? I won’t know until I try.
Clearing to the west, oil on canvas, 12×16, by Carol L. Douglas
Tara Will is a pastel painter from Maryland. She has never met a compositional rule she’s not willing to bend, break or pummel into submission. I look at everything she posts because her paintings are always colorful, light, and energetic. She keeps pastel lean and fresh.
Marc Granboisis a plein air painter from Quebec. His snow and ice are tremendous, but his skies are what I’m interested in these days. He can pull moody, brooding, and dramatic out of a leaden northern sky. There’s tremendous energy in his linework and patterning.
Every artist needs to know art history to understand where he or she fits into the great saga of art. A number of Nova Scotians commented that my painting style looked very Tom Thomson or Group of Seven. That’s partially because they’re familiar to Canadians, but it’s also because I have studied them for many years.
Recent landslide (Cape Sharp), oil on linen, 18×24, by Carol L. Douglas. This painting is the only one that’s going to get a studio revision–in this case, a crop, I think. I removed something at the last minute and it unbalanced the composition.
More recently, I’ve been thinking about the Scottish Colourists, particularly Francis Cadell. Both the Canadians and Scottish groups are post-impressionist, but they’re as interested in a sense of place as they are in formal order and structure.
Most of the painters I’ve mentioned are not superstars; they’re my fellows in the trenches. Who do you admire right now? What can you learn from their painting?
Your list will be different from mine, but thinking about what you like in your peers’ work gives you an idea of what you might want to change in your own. It’s a moving target. In a year, we’ll be talking about entirely different artists.
A lousy photo of a decent painting of the schooner Mercantile.
Yesterday I posted that I was unhappy with the design of my Mt. Battie painting, and hoped to fix it by playing with the light. (I was hoping I could break the rigid horizontal at the bottom by making the contrast with the water almost non-existent.) My student Carol Thiel asked, “Why don’t you put some boats in the foreground to break up that line?” That was a far more intelligent suggestion than trying to force the composition. I did it and it worked fine, and now I have an iconic Camden painting, of the library, a steeple, Mount Battie, and some boats—and no need to take a circular saw to the board.
Alison painting on a small canvas.
But that required waiting for the tide to rise. In the morning, I painted the schooner Mercantile at anchor. I loved Old Glory’s reflection in the water, and I walked around the harbor trying to find the best angle. I settled on painting from a floating dock. This is the easiest place from which to paint but it is hard on the legs. The docks rock constantly. So after five hours or so, I retreated back up to dry land.
Camden harbor with correction.
There I was happily surprised by my friend Alison Hill, a painter from Monhegan. She set up near me with an enormous jute canvas. In less than an hour she’d limned out a lovely painting of the harbor, and we’d had a great chat.
A little tailgate critique. Nice, nice group of artists.
Tomorrow, I have choices—a farmer’s market or the Mighty Megunticook?
Join me in October, 2013 at Lakewatch Manor—which is selling out fast—or let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in 2014. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!