Speed Painting Outdoors

27 Jul 2011

John had to deal with rapidly changing weather conditions as he worked on his plein air watercolor painting, Cub Lake Trailhead.  John had to deal with rapidly changing weather conditions as he worked on his plein air watercolor painting, Cub Lake Trailhead.

John had to deal with rapidly changing weather conditions as he worked
on his plein air watercolor painting, Cub Lake Trailhead

We outdoor painters are always on the search for beautiful places to paint, and so we become inveterate travelers and explorers. Some of us will go to great lengths to put ourselves in remarkable spots, and that may require overseas travel or lengthy, arduous hikes up into the mountains with a backpack full of gear. Often, it seems, after great efforts to attain some summit view or lofty lake, we find ourselves in a stunningly beautiful painting spot, but with rapidly changing light conditions. It is tempting to rush into action without taking the time to really see our subject fully. Working furiously in an attempt to capture the scene can result in missing it entirely. It is at those times that we have to stop for a moment and decide whether it is even possible, given the conditions, to get anything worthwhile on canvas or paper. If the decision is to go full speed ahead, then we must put our conscious mind in the backseat, so to speak, open our eyes and draw upon our reservoir of painting experience in order to proceed. This is often easier said than done. Like a noisy child in the back of the classroom, the conscious mind doesn't have much practice in keeping quiet. Hence the expression, "over-thinking it" which has caused the ruination of many noble artistic attempts.

I relish those moments outdoors when there is no time to over-think what I am painting. The demands of the fleeting moment and the fading light force me to focus my attention on the key elements of the subject and work with economy and accuracy. "See It. State It," becomes my mantra and the simple pleasure of being and painting is all that matters. We have to be willing to put aside, temporarily, what we want, in order to be able to express what actually is. It isn't very important to me if anything finished results from this effort, but, surprisingly, many of these rapid paintings are keepers.

Cub Lake Trailhead is a watercolor that resulted from one of those occasions when I had only a short time to work, and that time was plagued by changing light and peppered with intermittent rain. I was determined to make the best effort that I could given the little time I had to work that day. Intense focus and confident painting resulted in a keeper.

All this serves to remind us that our studio work can too often fall into an expression of what we think we want in a painting, rather than what our original inspiration actually was. This, to us, is one of the many great benefits of plein air painting, or working from life. When we return to the field and work in the changing light under the dome of sky, we feel as if we have returned to the source from which all art springs. The real trick is to see what is right before our eyes.

Nature is the great teacher. If we can learn to remove our conscious selves from the moment, she will teach us to see. And seeing is the foundation of great painting.

Join the fun and learn to "speed paint" in our plein air painting workshop in Rocky Mountain National Park this September.

-John & Ann

 


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