Although I do most of my work in the studio, at least once a week I go out painting plein aire with my “Monday group” the Plein Air Painters Association of San Diego, or PAPASAN. Locations range from lagoons to beaches to urban street scenes. I’ve been painting with this group for 6 or 7 years now, and I’ve seen oodles of growth in all the artists. Some artists were pretty green at painting on location at the beginning, but others were already darned good, and now they’re even better!
I’d like to think that I’m in that “much improved” category, because when I take a morning to go through my stack of location paintings I can see that while some are keepers, some, to be charitable, are near misses.
Plein air paintings, by their nature, are done quickly, usually within about two hours. The light is ever-changing, and if you persevere longer than that, you’ll find yourself doing what we call, “chasing the shadows,” which is when you start painting what the place looked like in the slanting morning light, but at noon you’re changing the shapes and colors of the cast shadows and the highlights because the sun is now overhead.
Sometimes when you’re painting this fast, everything sings. You’re in the zone. The colors harmonize, the composition is strong and even when you step back from the easel you know you’ve nailed it.
Sometimes you struggle: you can’t figure out how to make the values relate to each other, or the shapes won’t mesh, or you can’t make that crazy green of spring grass appear believable. Sometimes the ol’ turpentine rag comes out and before you pack up the canvas is wiped clean, like a sand painting in the wind.
Sometimes, brush in hand, you’re sure it’s working. You’re the center of the party, you’re intoxicated with art. When you’re done, you slide the wet painting into its protective carrier. The next day, when you take it out, ready to revel in its awesomeness, you wonder what you were thinking…. Kind of like realizing that what you said after that third drink might not have been as witty as you thought at the time. Maybe you were a little tipsy on sunshine, or drunk with the sound of waves crashing on cliffs while you were painting. But when you assess the canvas in the cold light of the studio, you realize that it just isn’t up to snuff.
You put it aside. You ponder whether the flaw is something simple that can be fixed with a single brush stroke. You look at it out of the corner of your eye for a while, or maybe you just put it in the stack of other misfits. And then comes a day when you have the choice of either discarding it or painting over it.
It all depends on how thickly the original paint was applied. If there aren’t too many bumps and strokes, a coat of paint, sometimes white, sometimes a muted gold, sienna, blue or lavender, will turn it into a new blank canvas. There is always partly a feeling of mourning the old painting that’s being buried, but also the catharsis of releasing the small mistakes of the endless learning process of making art.
And of course, there’s the joy of having a whole bunch of new canvases on which to start over!