Finding Joy in the Journey: Looking Back - 6 Years Ago - Reflections and Insight for my Plein Air Class Week 3
As I prepare for week 3 -my job is to not only teach the foundational skills to paint outdoors but to be an encourager to my students. To share my past experiences.. the good and the not so good. And hopefully an insightful perspective with a few years attached to it.
This week I want to share with them about a time when I drove up to Simsbury on a Saturday morning in July looking for the Connecticut Plein Air Painters Society group Paint Out, but couldn't find them. I plugged the farm address into my GPS, packed my gear and headed north. I drove around for a while but couldn't find the painters at this designated spot. Did I have the wrong day? the wrong time? Maybe I didn't get the email that they changed locations.
Whatever the case, I didn't want to waste this beautiful day. I headed down the street looking for the possibility of another place to paint. I drove up the road and to my surprise I came across an old railroad bridge that was covered with flowers. This totally caught me off guard. Later I found it's called the Old Drake Hill Flower Bridge. A local group work together each year to plant over 62 pots and hanging baskets from the ironwork. It's really a spectacular sight. The combination of the colorful and organic flowers and foliage against the steel, the Farmington River rushing underfoot and the blue sky above called out "Paint Me! Paint Me!"
I can remember hanging around for almost two hours. Looking, sketching, taking photos and looking some more. Honestly the scene was overwhelming and I had no clue how to paint it. I didn't have the experience or understanding of how and where to begin. Has this ever happened to you? Have you seen something that's caught your eye, you say to yourself this is really beautiful, I would love to capture it on canvas but when it comes down to where to begin... it's just overwhelming.
So what did I do instead? Back in my studio, I painted a scene close by but in another direction. For the longest time I just thought it was a cop-out. I didn't realize until recently and a few years of separation from that experience that... it wasn't an a cop-out at all. In fact I would love to share with my students a few lessons that I learned.
1. Be Flexible. No matter how much you plan an outdoor excursion, you've got the gear, the weather is cooperating, you've got the time, etc. it just might not go exactly how you planned. But be flexible. Keep your eyes wide-open and look for a plan B. or may plan C, or D. Looking back if I stopped at my original destination and painted there, I would have never traveled down this road to discover this amazing sight. Or what if I just gave up and drove home? That would have been a waste of time.
2. Sketching and take photos are valuable tools. I'm glad I had my sketchbook to practice and record what's in front of me. Even if I couldn't get up the nerve to set up my easel. In my sketchbook I could record the weather conditions, the sounds, and even my thoughts. Even though I spent time there sketching, drawing and walking around the sight. The photos helped to trigger my memories back in my studio.
3. Practice from your photos back in your home studio. Although being on location is what we are trying to achieve. It doesn't hurt, in fact, I think it helps tremendously to take a few intermediate steps, especially when your first starting out. Ask yourself a few questions back in your studio of why did this seem too challenging to paint on location. Too many colors? Complicated shapes? Subject too large for the canvas? Too many details? Once you define what was stopping you then you could address it in your home studio... in your safe zone. For me I set up my plein air easel in my studio and display images from my laptop onto a large screen tv in my studio to practice. . Reminder- the camera can distort the images so try not copy precisely from the photo, just use them as references. But this is the best way to practice. Take your time, measure and build your confidence. Once you've done some sketch work try going back to the location with your gear to set up and paint the scene.
4.Next Best: Find a scene close by that could feel like the area and paint that. Later on you'll reflect back on the "Next Best" painting and the memories of the place, time and moment will come flooding back to you even if you didn't paint the exact scene. You do remember the heat of the summer and the casting cool shadows from the surrounding trees. Maybe even the people you meet or the dogs you greet. Since a painter will spend much more time absorbed in a scene than when shooting a photo I believe those memories have a much deeper impact.
Hope these tips help you on your Plein Air Adventure and remember don't be too anxious to "arrive"... the Joy is in the Journey! Happy Painting!
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