Let’s get serious, not

The important thing is not whether you’re painting well or badly, but that you’re painting.

Sunset near Clark’s Island, oil on canvasboard, $652 framed.

Yesterday I was with my plein air students looking at the schooner Heron in Rockport harbor. “If I were being serious about this painting…” I started, and then listened to myself. There’s a curious bifurcation among professional painters. We’re at once completely serious and yet—for many of us—total goofballs.

I’m not just speaking about myself; I’ve painted in a lot of events, with a lot of very fine artists. Often, the casual observer would never believe we’re actually working (which may be why we get so many snarky comments from passers-by). We don’t appear to be taking our work at all seriously. That’s self-preservation when so often things go wrong, and it gives us the freedom to experiment. One can’t deviate from the tried-and-true without joie de vivre.

Friendship, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Of course, we all know That One Artist who firmly believes that he (it’s always a he) is a very important personage in art history. It’s easy to see how selling one’s work can subtly morph into an oversized ego. (If I ever start believing my own press, just take me out back and shoot me.)

But most of us are pretty laid back. Of course, our goofiness is earned. It rests on thousands of hours of experience and a rock-hard certainty about technique and method. It’s hard to be larky when things aren’t going right.

Jack Pine, 8X10, oil on prepared birch, $522 unframed.

Transition is (or ought to be) a regular part of the artistic experience. It’s the one thing that can suck the joy out of painting. When we’re integrating new ideas into our own work, we hate everything we’re doing, and it just feels like we’ve forgotten how to paint. “I have no idea what I’m doing!” does not inspire happiness.

I’ve learned to set those transitional paintings aside. They’re not going to sell, but they’re important markers along the road. Often, they end up being my favorites, but it takes me a few years to realize that they were guideposts along a new road.

A ten-minute sketch for my students that has some potential to go somewhere, once I pick off the pine needles.

This summer, I’m going out for an hour or two each morning and doing a quick study before I open my gallery at 394 Commercial Street here in Rockport. This is a funny plein air discipline, driven by necessity. It’s not enough time to do a finished painting so my studio is littered with incomplete starts. Sometimes I take them back out to finish them, and sometimes I leave them for a rainy day.

But these plein air studies are so low-calorie that I hardly need to worry if they’re ‘good’ or not. That gives me the freedom to experiment, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. After all, the important thing is not whether we’re painting well or badly, but that we’re painting.

Note: I’m limping along on a borrowed laptop, so all admin tasks are taking a while. That’s slowing down the transition of my blog to my own website.