In the fall of 2019 I was gearing up for Brickbottom Open Studios – the biggest event I participate in each year. Over 23 days in November, I did 25 paintings, including a demo panel showing 6 stages of my painting process. With each painting I felt satisfied with the work, confident and in control of the process.
Here’s the thing: each of those paintings was a still-life. Painted in my studio.
Fast forward to my first plein-air venture in April, and you see a painting that is wonky and uncertain. It wasn’t a bad painting (in fact, it sold!). But it lacked the confidence of my still lifes. Worse, my confidence didn’t build during my plein-air paintings in May, June, and into July. Into the fall, my process felt unstable, at best. Some pieces I’m very happy with. Others are embarrassingly clunky and overworked.
This discrepancy between my studio paintings and plein-air work has long been a frustration for me. I thoroughly enjoy both types of work, but I have rarely moved beyond feeling just barely adequate in my plein air painting. And it seemed that no matter how much I hit the field, I wasn’t capturing the growth I wanted.
It wasn’t until just after Christmas of 2020 that I stumbled across Bryan Mark Taylor’s videos about painting and learning. In them he talks about the need for daily, thoughtful practice. I had engaged in daily painting before – kind of. Much of what I did was painting most days instead of painting every day. So on December 16th I committed to 8 weeks of painting every days. I was going to only practice on landscapes, working from photos. Initially I wanted to work just on my color mixing, but as the paintings progressed I began to see improvements in all areas.
I finished the 8 week program a few days. I’ve learned so much from watching other painters, that I wanted to share my insights, in the hopes that someone else might glean some information and learn from it as well. So here goes.
The good stuff:
- Practice makes progress. I mean, like, duh. Obviously. But working on the same types of subjects, every day builds skill faster and stronger than working once a week, or splitting focus between two genres. I paint from life, and I’m a wimp who hates being cold, so… my landscape work is limited to summer months, usually on weekends. Of course my still life work is stronger – it’s what I work on literally every other day of the year! I can paint a still life in the evening after work, or in the depth of winter, all while my landscape work languishes waiting for the perfect sunny day.
- Working from photos removed distractions. I often get into my own head searching for the perfect scene for ‘the great painting’. Instead of settling on a spot I bike a bit further, and the a bit more, until I’m out of time, out of light, tired, and frustrated. How often does a good painting come out of those conditions? For this project, I went through my travel and vacation pictures and dragged 100 of them into a folder for quick access. No thinking, no dilly-dallying. Just pick one and paint. (Okay, there was still lots of dilly-dallying but far less physical activity involved)
- Practice removes the pressure. As mentioned above, I put a lot of unneeded pressure on my landscapes because of the scarcity of time I have to get into the field. On top of that, everyone has their blind spots with subjects. Some people hate painting cars, or bicycles, or buildings. For me, I’m lousy at trees – a pretty big deficiency for a landscape painter. Daily, thoughtful practice gave me the space to tackle problem areas without the pressure of trying to paint ‘the great painting’ on the one day a week I set aside for landscapes. I could take a swing at a problem area and if it didn’t work out…welp, I try again tomorrow.
The bad stuff. While the process was overall a success, I think there are a few areas to consider if folks want to try a similar course of study.
- Conditions change in real life. Again, obviously, working in the studio isn’t the same as working in life. I expect there to be a learning curve when I do venture out with my plein-air kit again. Sunlight moves, wind blows, some a-hole parks a van in front of you…all these things that don’t happen working in the studio.
- I got fatigued. In addition to painting, I work full time, on my feet every day. I also walk 4 miles to and from work. There were days I’d arrive home exhausted and 100% disinterested in standing for another two hours painting. I saw the need to pace myself and treat myself: while setting up the folder of source material I intentionally put in some easy-win scenes that weren’t too complicated. I also gave myself permission to work small (5×7 or 6×6) and to set shorter time limits (45 minutes to an hour). And, while my focus was on landscapes, I threw in some subjects that were a bit more still-life; a creepy old house, some tractors and boats, etc, that I knew would entice me more.
- This took much more planning than anticipated. I began painting on 12/15. For a few days in December I jumped back to work on a larger still life…and also to ensure I had enough reference photos and primed panels to get me through the remaining time. Finding 100 images seemed like an easy task, given I have 20+ years of vacation and travel photos on my computer. But a lot of the images I had were redundant, or shot in such a way that rendered them unworkable for paintings. Towards the end weeks I began photographing scenes on the way to and from work to fill in the gaps.
Im not entirely sure how to end this post, since I don’t think the process is every complete. Overall, I’m very happy that I embarked on it. I made a lot of progress. And I’ll probably set up future endeavors for areas I feel weak in (like drawing).