"Again and again I've taken quick glances and then for some reason I've got to sit before a picture waiting and it's opened up like one of those Japanese flowers that you put into water and something I thought wasn't worth more than a casual, respectful glance begins to open up depth after depth of meaning." — Sister Wendy Beckett
Sister Wendy Beckett has described the ultimate purpose of art–an unfolding of understanding and depth of meaning. Some paintings and sculptures have this power built into them and some do not. Some artists are able to create immediate excitement in their work, while others work to instill deeper feeling which takes time to appreciate. Our greatest satisfactions in our own art have always come from those works to which we gave our time generously. This is not difficult to do in the controlled studio environment. Painting outdoors, however, puts its own set of constraints on our working process.
|Lake of Zug by JMW Turner.|
Plein air landscape painting is a challenging endeavor quite on its own, without the factor of time pushing us along. We are acutely aware that the sun is moving across the sky, changing the light angle, moving shadows around and sometimes recoloring the scene. Getting to a location takes time, setting up the easel takes time, blocking in takes time, and then it can feel like there is no time to truly understand what we are looking at before we must get something down on the canvas.
It is no surprise that otherwise well-constructed and masterfully executed pictures can often leave us without any feeling for the place or the idea behind the painting. In our rush to work, we can sometimes miss what it was that inspired us in the first place.
Nature is a complicated, even chaotic subject. The effort to understand what we are seeing takes time–time to sit quietly and just try to let Nature's sublime, supremely sensible organization unfold before us. Photographs are very little help with this process, and can often make matters worse, flattening the world and obfuscating important relationships as they do so. Cameras are only good for looking at the skin, but as artists we want to get to muscle and bone of our subject as well. The best way to do that, we've found, can be to simply work in a sketchbook, for drawing engages the brain and hand in understanding better than any other activity.
|Sunset at Etretat by George Inness.|
We have also found that the act of slowly walking around in our subject and changing our point of view can do wonders. As we move, the brain adds in the new visual information and builds a more informed three-dimensional picture of our environment, allowing us to sense ourselves in the space instead of seeing it as a flat picture plane. New compositions emerge and a feeling for our subject grows. It is that growing feeling that we most pay attention to, for that is where the art will be found. What is our connection to this place, this piece of earth? What can we say in our art about our experience of this place which would speak to others? The more time we spend looking and thinking, the deeper the questions become, and the richer the potential for expression.
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–John and Ann