Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Winning When You Don't Expect To

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Socorro is a town that runs North/South along the I25 and Rio Grande corridor. It has the New Mexico School of Mines and is an old town in the state. Most people know it only by the fact that they run through it, getting gas and maybe stopping to pick up a few sundries.

This past weekend, many artists, (me and my friend Gay Scheibl included) converged on this lovely place, with the intent to paint for three days and compete in a plein air competition. There were artists whose name I had become familiar as I have been a member of PAPNM for a while now, never having been able to make a paintout for numerous reasons. I knew their work, not them. So this past weekend I got a chance to meet them and share experiences. What a blast. What lovely work they produced. Amazing stuff, all painted in the rain, or under threatening clouds, spiced only with the occasional break in the cloud cover and a sudden burst of sunlight. No wusses here! Those bursts were to die for. The sun had a brightness, when surrounded by the weather, that I cannot forget. I stared at those islands of light, committing them to memory and wanting to paint that dazzling color and light – not the ominous clouds.

Rushing water on the second day made the canyons not so safe, so Gay and I painted in the town center, in a lovely park, with old buildings. Some dated from the 1800s, with hand hewn log ceilings, herringbone brick floors that undulated as you walked over them, and gorgeous overhanging portals. Again, the light was dazzling, if fleeting. We had a tour from a beautiful lady named Marguerite, and got to know Socorro better than the scurrying tourists.

A Break in the Clouds
Oil on board 11x14
First Place Winner in the Three Day PAPM competition

I marveled at the variety in the pieces produced, and at those we painted in the quick draw on Saturday morning. It was my first quick draw event, and the first plein air competition I painted in, with the intent to compete. Pressure! I didn’t even think about it or never would have painted such a geometrically complex piece. I forced myself to paint buildings, something I never would have tried before the LaRock workshop last month. But I did get it done by the whistle blow! Waid Griffin won first in the quick draw. His piece was beautiful and felt wet.

"Box Canyon - A Moment of Light"
Painted during PAPNM - Socorro NM
11x14 Oil on Board

The three day paintout ended with a show at Vertu Gallery, an enchanting gallery, just off the town square. I showed 2 paintings, one a view of the color and light in the town square as the cloud cover broke, and one of Box Canyon, just up the 60, from Socorro. When the awards for the three day event were announced, I was absolutely shocked to have won first. It looked like I was on a different planet than the rest of the painters, mine was so bright. I am thankful and wonder what the judging committee put in their tea that morning, but I am not complaining!

My First Quick Draw - Socorro Abstract Building
8x20 Oil on Board
Thanks to all the other artists for their gracious acceptance of two unknown painters in their midst. PAPNM rocks!  And not least of all, thanks to Karyn and Dave Debont without whom it would never have taken place. Socorro County, the owners of Vertu Gallery - Prescott and Georgette, the Debonts and even the city groundskeepers  made us all feel really welcome. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What the Heck is Plein Air Anyhow?

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Keith Bond ran an article on FASO’s blog wondering what constitutes a plein air work. He said that there are several definitions, mostly referring what percentage of the work had been done in the field, and that each had some validity. He also said that many studio pieces when shown, are sometimes categorized as plein air. Really?

Well……here goes a can of worms…

I think (read in personal opinion here) that the minute you get more than fifty percent of the work executed in the studio, you now definitely have a STUDIO piece. To me, the percentage needed of ‘in field work’ to be a ‘plein air’ is much higher, more around 80% to 90%. Now before you find fault with this, understand that some exhibitions demand that the entire piece be completed on site for a piece to be a plein air. There are times when the underlying paint makes telephone lines, boat moorings, staircase railings and the like impossible to paint until the bottom layer has gone a bit tacky. Tacky, meaning sticky, not a condition of the quality of the painting itself. There are those pieces whose finishing flourishes need to be completed after the fact because the rain, snow, wind, hail (add your personal preference for natural disaster) has made finishing in the field an impossibility. This is understandable. I have shelved more pieces than I care to think about because I could not finish in the field. I am waiting for similarly lit days to complete the paintings. Now THAT is plein air. Being there in the flesh. Whether you are on a chair, under a canopy, sheltered by a car, transported by car, truck, cart, bicycle, horse or mule is immaterial. It means being there, on site, in the act of painting.

Early Morning Crystal Cove
6x8 Oil on board - Available
But if the percentage of the painting left incomplete is so high that it requires an equal or near equal amount of time in the studio to achieve completion, then rest assured it is NOT a plein air piece. Yes you may have started it in plein air, and perhaps it still retains some glimmer of the authenticity that plein air observation imparts, but it is not plein air. The smell of the flowers, the taste of rain on the way, the rising tide, the blow of the wind threatening to blow over your whole rig all lends a sense of reality to the work that the control of a studio, however comfortable, cannot furnish. Think of that Subaru commercial. That guy has it right regardless of what you think of his work.

Afternoon Crystal Cove
6x8 Oil on board - Available
And then there is the light. The crucial element. So you say you have good photos. Good for you. They are not enough. Your own eyes are so very much better at discerning the infinitesimal differences of value from lights to darks in a scene, that no typical camera, digital or otherwise, can compete. Unless you are bracketing a shot, you are diluting the darks into black, or blowing out the lights to white. I mentioned this to a painter who swears she is such an avid photographer, and she did not know what I was talking about. To expect painters to do this is an awfully unreal expectation from people who think their phones are too complex to operate. Yes you can paint from a photo. Will you get the same results? No.  Undeniably, NO.  You lose color in the shadows. You lose temperature shifts of color in the transitions. You lose the unique quality of the light itself.

So to Keith Bond, I say yes there is a point at which a piece can no longer be considered a plein air painting. It’s when it is not painted out of doors. Literal translation from the French: en plein air = in the open air, the outdoors. In other words, not within the confines, comfort and limitations of the studio.

I recently drove 700 miles to take a Greg LaRock workshop in Laguna CA. Yup. That far. And what did we do? We turned our backs on the water, one day, to paint the beachside cottages at Crystal Cove. I could hear the surf, taste salt, pour on the sunscreen, hear the gulls, and here I was, painting the buildings. Wow. I learned a lot. Greg is an unbelievably good painter and a wonderful teacher. He is well spoken, gets his point across and teaches with a natural gift. He teaches plein air. In the field. With the sound of the water crashing in your ears. Creating a feeling that is impossible to replicate in a building.
Favorite quote of the day:
When painting and sketching plein-air I sink into the landscape, and am attuned witness to its mood and beauty.                                                                                    (Dianne Bersea)