I took a big step forward in my working practise recently. I’ve been getting frustrated for a long time with the limitations, constraints and drawbacks on painting from life, plein air specifically, and have been trying to work out a way around it while still maintaining some core principles.
Painting on location, outside in the landscape is a wonderful thing. I maintain that there is no better way to learn. And by “learn” I mean everything – How to draw, how to pick a composition, how to see, judge and recreate the tones of reality with the limited range of paint, how to mix realistic colours with the correct levels of hue and saturation, and on and on…
Regular plein air painting builds skill, knowledge and confidence and was an essential part of my self-education as an artist. I owe almost everything to it. However, it can only provide the solution to a finite set of artistic goals. Here are the issues:
The sun moves and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I paint small when I paint outside, because I don’t like working for more than 2 hours on a plein air painting. The sun has travelled too far in the sky after this time for conditions to remain consistent, so what you’re looking at by the end, no longer represents what you were looking at at the start. This is a problem when your aim is capturing reality. If the sky is very overcast, this rule extends, sometimes doubles, but like it or not, you’re not going to have 6 hours straight to match those colours to perfection. Returning to the same spot at the same time in the same weather/light can mean a long wait. Too long (a few months) and the sun’s arc has risen, meaning potentially postponing for another year until you’re back where you started. Are you still going to care about that painting then? I wouldn’t. I’m impatient. I want it done then and there. I never do multi-session plein air pieces as the inspiration is gone after a few hours, it’s all about that intense window of “capturing the moment” for me.
This is much an issue about painting sight-size as it is the practicalities of working outside on a large canvas. I have always instinctively painted sight-size so everything on my canvas is the same height/width as it is to my naked eye. This makes drawing significantly easier than when trying to condense a wide angle view down on a smaller board. The only check needed to see if your drawing is off is a quick series of glances to and fro from board to scene – whatever “jumps” in your composition is either too big, too small, the wrong angle or in the wrong place. It’s a wonderfully efficient way to work. Truth be told, the drawing/sketching period of a painting can take as long as you like as it’s only when colours are mixed that the changing light really becomes an issue. The objects stay where they are however the light is hitting them. (yes, you can call a defined shadow area an object, but let’s not get too pedantic. You know know what I mean)
Carrying a big board or canvas out into the field can be a practical nightmare. Especially if there’s wind, never mind the weight issue.
So I like painting small then. Big pieces for me are out, which is a shame. I want to paint big. It’s another aspect of painting that needs exploring and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career sticking to 10 x 8″
The thing about nature is, it’s unpredictable. If I’m trying to capture some long shadows on a London street and the sun goes in after 40 minutes, this is a problem. If I’m painting some beautiful fluffy grey clouds and it starts hailing after 40 minutes, this is a problem. I’ve dealt with all these things over the years, many, many times. They make for notable memories and occasionally good stories, adding to the struggle and making the wins all the sweeter, but they are not conducive to an efficient working practise. You have to be comfortable with chaos to make a living working outside especially in the UK climate and as the years went on, that struggle has gone from acceptable quirk, to unacceptable irritation. I wanted more control, more time, less urgency and bigger paintings that I could plan. I wanted to start saying something specific, rather than recording whatever the elements threw at me that day.
When I was a kid, I drew. A lot. I drew from my head and my imagination was a constant explosion, cycling on specific themes – Zombies, aliens, cyborgs and machines, but all of it was made-up with no reference, other than my memory of things I had seen, or knew.
Plein air painting was the opposite in many ways. There was no imagination, there was just reality. That was the point. Could I capture it? Make an accurate record of that moment in oil paint and take it home? It was a technical challenge and a skill building exercise – how do I learn how to use these tools? Up until then I was terrible with colour. Most of my work as an adolescent was black fine liner pen on white paper – colour was limited to a red felt tip to flesh out the zombie’s guts.
I tried to put something of “me” into the plein air work, other than my personal style of mark-making. I tried “pushing” colour in certain places to accentuate a light effect or focal point but it always ended in disaster. If I was looking at something, if I had reference in front of me, that was all I could see and that was all that was going to get painted. The sheer amount of info available when working outside was so over-whelming, there didn’t seem to to be room in my brain for any subjective opinion of my own whilst recording it. Interpretation didn’t feel possible in the way that I’d have liked to do it. There was just “copy it, or don’t”
Trying to reconcile this issue of having a career as an Artist but not actually feeling that creative became a real problem and it was beginning to have a serious negative effect on my work and mood, so something had to give. I started the Mini Collection as a way to break the deadlock and try and work more decision making and personality in to my paintings, but I soon found myself back in the same patterns or recording exactly what I saw, regardless of whether I was painting on location, or from a photo I’d taken on my phone. The Minis allowed me to rapidly iterate on content and theme, but not, seemingly, how those images were being made.
The breakthrough came when I sat down and drew 6 small square thumbnail sized squares on a piece of A4 paper and just started drawing a landscape from my head. No reference, no images, just trailing lines with a pencil and feeling my way around. It really was a lightbulb moment as I instantly felt at home sketching out field boundaries, rivers, hills and cloud forms. Some of my best memories are from being outside, looking at a view or taking in a landscape and it felt I was drawing from all these positive feelings and creating something uniquely me. And that’s what’s so satisfying about this method – these pieces are mine, 100%. No one else can claim the spot, or say someone else went there first or painted it better. I own this work completely.
I remember certain plein air trips, over 2 or 3 days where I literally came home with nothing. I couldn’t find a painting out there. Something was always wrong – the light, the shapes, a partially obscured viewpoint and that drove me crazy. The wasted time, money and effort, all such valuable things, especially as a self-employed person with a mortgage and two kids.
So this new approach feels good. It feels like the right time and it feels like there is huge scope for development. I feel like I’ve done my apprenticeship and built my skillset and I now get to deploy it as I see fit, making the images that I want see. I get to create the things I wish existed. Now that’s a special thing.