Below is the audio and transcript of a talk I gave at Lafayette College in Easton,Pennsylvania for the Arts Community of Easton on 14 August 2018.
*if you'd like to view the whole presentation, scroll down to the next header
When Danny asked me to do this, he wrote, “can you speak about the joys of plein air painting and your work.” That question, light, simple and informal as could be, somehow landed in me with enough force to trigger something more existential than I had anticipated. Of course I can speak about the joys of plein air painting. I love plein air painting but I am not a plein air painter.
When I think of plein air painters I think of them as a sort of ordained fellowship of painters who have this drive to go anywhere and paint anything outdoors anytime with amazing abilities to capture all the views. I never quite had that relationship with plein air painting but I can share with you how my relationship with it grew, how it’s ever evolving and how I use it as a counterbalance to my usual studio practice.
My work that you might be familiar with already is all done from memory, imagination and invention. I don’t use photos to paint from and I don’t really do plein air sketches of landscapes, skies, or clouds that I take back to the studio and work from. All the work you’ve seen is just conjured from memory or invented. And it’s a loose definition of ‘memory’. It’s not quite a literal recollection of a specific sky or cloud or place as in a photographic memory. it’s more a version of what a memory felt like, so it’s distilled down a bit.
Painting from memory and imagination is a way I use to cultivate the practice of paying attention and to refine mindfulness. So, instead of stopping to take photos of beautiful cloud formations to paint from later, I take a moment to look at them with the intent of becoming fully aware of not only their shape or color but of as much of the context of that moment as I can take in.
I pay them attention and that feels like I end up seeing and absorbing all of it beyond just the visual. It’s a bit like taking a photo if along with the image, the camera recorded all of your senses, memories, physical, mental, and spiritual associations. And that’s what I try to pull from when I work on paintings in the studio.
At this point, my studio paintings have gained their own momentum and the creative process involved in making them has become a practice I can return to and repeat in order to achieve a desired end. I like to consider it a working meditation. At it’s best, I try to paint from a zeroed out mind meaning I leave the static of day to day worries out of the process and devote my energy to the nothingness of a blank canvas. Nothingness can be super liberating. But trying to focus on it when your bills are late and you just scheduled a tooth extraction for Thursday can be challenging.
So it’s not always easy or possible to get to that place and when I need help, I sort of default to what I learned from musical improvisation. I establish a key, pick a theme, and just start following it. I let paint, paint and get my mind out of the way the same way I would let a rhythm section establish a groove while I waited to play a melody played over it. After a few minutes it usually turns to a momentary, reactionary, reflexive, process of decision making and creative problem solving with the intention of reaching beyond the technical and into the heart of the experience.
I think of it like trying to stack the decisions about color and composition and value on top of each other in order to build a
sort of ladder to the metaphysical and transcendent.
My goal is always to get to the place where I stop thinking about painting while I’m painting. It’s a brilliant sensation to conjure that kind of creative freedom. At it’s core it’s not just about painting or any art form really. That kind of creativity requires presence. It requires a clear and clean energy, free of the burdensome past and worrisome future. It requires that you stand only in the moment you’re in which makes one feel more like a channel and a vehicle for art to move thru rather than mechanistically executing a task.
Plein air painting used to be a steady source of misery for me. I loved everything about it; being in nature, the gear, the opportunities for packing a great lunch and spending the day with friends painting in the wild, I loved everything except what I made and how I felt after I made it. After spending days outdoors and loving the sun and the openness, I would feel a sort of desperate sadness and frustration about how difficult it was for me to make a painting that passed as remotely acceptable. My paintings looked nothing like those of my art historical heroes and I felt embarrassed when I compared them to those I’d seen of contemporary plein air painters. My joy for the experience was incredibly out of proportion with my sense of artistic achievement or competence.
It all just felt like a million miles away from the joyful conjuring that took place in the studio. Instead of a free flow of music-like momentum, it felt tedious and forced which soured everything. I was thinking too much about how to paint like other people I admired and not feeling anything but angry because despite having been on numerous plein air trips during and after college, I was never taught anything about how to do it. Nothing. I had a million questions but didn’t even know what they were. And as a note on context of this time period, the internet wasn’t as enormous and accessible as it is today. It was years before we carried super computer phones around that answer any question immediately. I relied on art books and was rather solitary then so my peer groups were 19th century painters who didn’t do much talking.
At that point in my development, I was also a severely harsh critic of my abilities, my skills and my self. I fought with the idea of perfectionism daily; which really isn’t an idea so much as a tyranny and a trap. I set up this impossible standard created by chronic comparison to peers both contemporary and historical. Any paintings I made during that phase were dead on arrival. In fact, they were arguably dead even before arrival because that kind of judgment kills creativity by strangling it. I compared them to death. The more I looked at other paintings, the more I felt those painters were just born with it and I was not.
That frustration lasted years and years and honestly there was a part of me that felt like it’s just not worth pursuing because the level of discomfort and frustration was so disproportionally high. No matter how beautiful the location or how fun the experience of plein air days were, I had this feeling like I couldn’t wait to be done and get back to the solitary studio experience that felt familiar where I could control the light and feel like I wasn’t a beginner. And that was the epiphany moment for me. A red flag went up and I had to shift the focus here because it felt like there was more at stake than I had been considering.
I had been resisting being and feeling like a beginner. There was this part of me that judged that stage as something that I should have been past at that point in my career and so slowing down to learn basics felt like backtracking and losing time. I reexamined the idea of being a beginner. Instead of looking at it like wasting time backtracking, I decided to use it as a way to make everything new again. To look at things as if I’d never seen them before. To paint like I had no idea how. My intention was to rewire my thought process and ultimately change and expand my creative process.
I decided to view plein air painting as a retreat from the environment that (I thought) made me who I was because I was steeped in it every day all the time. But what if I could leave that for just a bit and let myself feel like a stranger in a strange land. What if I allowed myself to take the pressure off and stop trying to make a great painting and instead just be present and look at nature as if I’d never seen it before; treat the paintings like small recordings of that experience rather than attempts at making masterpieces, or paintings that looked like paintings I admired, or ‘capturing’ the light or likeness of the landscape in front of me. I have no interest in capturing anything. Ever. I’d rather be a witness. I’d rather be there with it as if in dialogue. And in that dialogue, I’d mostly aim to be the listener.
And so I went out by myself. I found this spot along the canal that was fairly secluded which was super important to me. I wanted, I NEEDED the security
of seclusion in order to free myself up and not have to deal with people stopping to look or standing behind me commenting on every move.
I made some of the worst paintings I’ve ever made there…
and they were glorious.
Every gorgeous failure was a bomb I threw against the walls of the perfectionism cage I lived in for all those years. Instead of feeling awful after a day of painting,
I began to feel elated. The worse the paintings were, the better I felt. I was working it out. Suddenly I had tangible questions to ask and it was the work that answered them. We can talk about painting all we want. You don’t get good at it unless you do it.
I loved the lessons that came from every awkwardly composed, value deficient, color impaired disaster that I spent all day making. It was also a really good feeling to do the work. To actually keep my word to myself that I was going to get good at this and show up to do it rather than listen to the incessant voice of my inner critic trying to convince me that if I wasn’t born with it, it wasn’t going to happen.
Or better yet, that trying to get good at this now was a waste of time and I should just go to the studio and paint cloud paintings that people know me for and that sell. To run contrary to that hyper critical inner voice is a test of strength and endurance. It’s like a Goliath sized monster that’s built out of all the critical voices and judgments you’ve heard you’re whole life as well as the ones you’re afraid of hearing in the future. You can’t take it down by hurling one big rock at it one time though. It’s lots of little rocks, day after day, month after month that finish it off. I made that part of the mission of going out to paint then and instead of an activity that undid me, I turned plein air painting into a way to ground myself, to gain as much technical knowledge and practice as I could, to build on that practice faithfully, and lay bare any fear or judgment that held me back for years.
While I was making that switch in perspective, I somehow got called to teach plein air workshops. It was odd that at a time when I felt the least accomplished, knowledgeable, or proven in this field, I was being asked to teach others about it. But I had been gaining some momentum in my own practice and was super excited about sharing what I had figured out with my students, so I accepted. I looked at it as a way to teach to what I never got as a student. I knew that my experience of learning to see something differently and repeating it until it was internalized, was transformational. I imagined that it might be the same for other students.
So I started to develop a program that addressed all the issues I had as a passionate yet frustrated and uninformed young painter. I wanted to transform all the issues that had given me grief for years into clarity and direction for other painters. I wanted to work with students to improve the technical aspects of painting but I also wanted to leave space to consider and the emotional components that shape people’s creative processes.
Art-making is about so much more than the art we’re making sometimes
and empathy is a vital element in teaching it.
I started doing small workshops once a spring or summer at my solitary canal spot or from the perch over the waterfall at Scott Park. They focused on all the fundamentals that I struggled with and relied heavily on mixed skill levels of students having their work discussed and holistically deconstructed in comprehensive group critiques. It was never a demo-heavy style of teaching in that I don’t expect or want students to paint like me. Although, I don’t mind if they use imitation like stepping stones to get their own voice. I teach to the individual and am really good at finding the root of the struggle, as well as the root of the strengths. I want them to burrow into themselves and find the thing that’s keeping them from the next level. If it’s drawing, value, color, composition, fine. I know how to fix those. If it’s never finishing anything because you’re afraid of it being judged. Ok. Let’s do that too. I’m here for it. They grew into larger and more frequent workshops in spring, summer, and fall and through out the Lehigh Valley and beyond. This past spring I welcomed students from Texas, Arkansas, Connecticut, and Virginia to Easton for workshops.
Two years ago, I was approached by the West Park Civic Association to help build a cultural event that would promote the arts and integrate with their community in the West End of Allentown. My idea was to teach a three day plein air workshop to all skill levels and donate all the tuition to the Baum School of Art to fund scholarships for art education. In the first two years, that workshop has raised just shy of $4000 for scholarships. We have already chosen the dates for next year’s workshop and hope to surpass our previous totals.
A few years ago, I was going to write a blog post for students that included some resources for plein air painting. Instead, it grew into this printed guidebook for workshop students called ‘Notes on Plein Air’. It’s a collection of quotes and a bibliography from some excellent painting resources as well as some of my own thoughts on plein air painting. I’ve added to it every few months and hope to make it available for purchase on my website sometime in the near future. That led to developing a few other workshops like ‘Cloud and Sky Painting’ and ‘Value Studies for the Practicing Artist’ both of which I’ve taught several times this past year from my studio and as a guest instructor at other studios. Some upcoming workshops and guide books are figure studies, anatomy for artists, and portraiture.
The subtitle on these guidebooks is ‘Be Present. Be Mindful. Be Aware. Paint.’. Those words were really just what I repeated to myself over and over again before and during plein air painting sessions in an attempt to kill the anxiety, pressure, and judgement I felt. They’ve become the foundation for my creative process and approach to teaching.They also remind me that it’s possible to gain empowerment from what isn’t working in your art practice. You don’t have to fester with anger and grudges at your past professors. You don’t have to constantly slay yourself with harsh judgement, or feel wholly inadequate compared to other artists your age (or younger) who are firmly rooted in their well-established genres with singular and easily-defined labels and substantial, steady paychecks. You don’t have to identify yourself by what you’re not, and force tons of creativity-killing pressure to crack your foundation and ruin your love for your art. Instead, you can turn your back on all of those thoughts and face the direction of the best thing you ever made.
I used to think, say, and believe, ‘I am not a plein air painter’ and that phrase used to demolish my confidence and feed the anxiety I felt about going out to paint.
But now when I say ‘I am not a plein air painter’, it’s with a sense of freedom because I’m just a painter. Present. Mindful. Aware. Painting in the sweet spot of the generous present moment.