In this hurly-burly world, it can be hard to stop and take the time to truly be present — that state of mind in which we shut off the busy chatter in our heads and become aware of our surroundings. This can be especially true for the plein air painter who is often consumed with finding something to paint and then frantic to capture the ever-changing light.
The painting medium with which we work also plays a part. The immediacy of pastel, for example, can be an asset but it can also lead to a hurried application. Wet painters have to take the time to mix various pigments together before application. Even though it may only take a few seconds, it takes thought and contemplation. Pastelists, on the other hand, can glance down at the numerous possibilities within arm’s reach and instantly commit their choice to the surface.
I was reminded of how easy it is to get into a hurried rush last year while working with a group in beautiful Grand Marais, Minnesota. Everywhere we looked was a stunning vista and I, like the others, was eager to capture it ALL in pastel. Having allowed for an extra day after the workshop for personal painting, I was out early to capture the morning light. After getting in a pretty good painting, I decided to rest a bit and have lunch. I selected a spot to eat that I thought wouldn’t offer the distraction of a potential painting scene, one where I could quietly sit by the shores of Lake Superior and just relax. As I ate, however, I became intrigued with the decaying remnants of a long abandoned pier. The negative space of the water and the pier was fascinating. The longer I looked, the more beautiful the subtle iridescence of the water became. Before long, I was setting up the easel and calmly painting a small pastel study. If I hadn’t spent the quiet time just being present along this section of the shoreline, I wouldn’t have had what became one of the best painting experiences of the trip.
Quiet the Hunt: Remind yourself when going out to paint not to look for the perfect subject. Allow yourself the luxury of just being with a location for a period of time. Look beyond the literal objects that make up a scene to the quality of the light or arrangement of color and texture. These form the aesthetic core of an interesting piece of artwork. A good exercise is to plop yourself down in the middle of a scene that doesn’t initially interest you. Then allow at least 20 minutes to simply observe. You may be amazed at the inspiration you find.
The Gift of Time: Once you start painting, work with the attitude that you have all the time in the world, even though you know you do not. Getting into the hurried rush to finish can be detrimental to a successful outcome. Quite often, I remind myself that it is better to have an incomplete painting that has merit than one that is finished but flawed.
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