Archive for the ‘My way of seeing things’ Category

En Plein Air — Pros and Cons

Friday, June 1st, 2018

I’ve been focusing on plein air the second quarter of this year.  But I know that plein air painting is not for everyone; nor is it the best option for all situations.   So, in case some of my readers are thinking about trying it, in this article I thought it might be good to enumerate some of the pros and cons of painting outdoors, as compared with working in a studio setting.

Whereas it’s lovely to work outdoors in beautiful, sunny weather (PRO), it’s safe to say that none of us live in an area that is comfortable all the time.  At one time or another, we all face uncomfortable environmental factors, which can feel exaggerated when we’re painting outdoors (CON).  Heat, cold, wind, precipitation, blowing dust or sand, dripping trees, and a variety of insect life can easily put a lid on an otherwise pleasurable outing or threaten the integrity of our work.  In cold weather, paint stiffens, water freezes, and our fingers, toes, and ears go numb.  In warmer weather, we may more likely be affected by sudden showers, wind gusts that can topple an easel, and insects that bombard us and become embedded in our work.  Yet, where else but outdoors do we have the opportunity to observe so closely or so directly the colors of our immediate environment under natural lighting conditions (PRO)?

Whereas a studio can provide both controlled climatic conditions, as well as controllable lighting conditions, the sun is a continuously moving light source, and scudding clouds can exacerbate the problem of rapidly changing shadow patterns (CON).  So wise painters discipline themselves (PRO) to preplan and follow compositional studies carefully to avoid “chasing the light” as the light-and-shadow patterns shift.

And although studio work, based on previously painted studies or photographs, can provide a broad choice of preselected views from a wide range of locations, working on site, en plein air, gives us flexibility to choose specific views, from an almost unlimited variety of angles, and both size and dimensions of the compositional field within the available locale (PRO).  We are also unconsciously more inclined to integrate non-visual sensual impressions from our environment into our work (PRO).  And although we cannot control the immediate climatic or lighting conditions within our locale (CON), painting on location does provide incentive to explore the same scene in a variety of lighting and atmospheric conditions (PRO) without limiting ourselves to some expected, idealized view.

Breaking away from studio reference photos also frees us to view an area in ways we haven’t previously considered and to interpret it “with new eyes”.  It gives us incentive to seek beauty even in the seemingly mundane or in elements of life that others might even consider ugly.  It stretches us spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually, and opens our hearts to quite literally see the world differently (PRO).

Working outdoors usually tends to limit our actual painting time (CON).  Both transporting and protecting our equipment and materials both enroute to the painting site and for our return takes time from our actual painting activity.  But, although we may feel pressured to work too quickly to produce our best work (CON), it does motivate us to work efficiently, from selecting our materials to transport, through preplanning our compositions, to executing the painting itself (PRO).

Passersby can further limit our time by stopping to talk with us and by offering “critiques” (sought or not) of the work in progress (CON).  But these same interruptions provide visibility and an opportunity to both gauge the public’s response to our work and to engage them in it to better understand it and appreciate our painting process (PRO).  It may even occasionally result in a sale (PRO).

And as well as engaging with the public, working en plein air, which is often done in a group with other painters, gives us the opportunity to exchange ideas with other like-minded artists, to share ideas, information, seek out knowledgeable feedback, and to build lasting friendships (PRO).

All artists should weigh these pros and cons to decide whether the plein-air option would be right for them.  If nothing else, it’s a refreshing excuse to get out into the world.

Intuition and Preplanning

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

While pointing out to my class how certain design principles are exemplified in master paintings, one of my students asked if the artists had actually thought about all of these principles as they planned the paintings.

I assured her that, although an artist will think consciously about certain aspects of a composition, so many of the principles will have become ingrained through experience that the design principles will have become second nature—an extension of the artists intuitive aesthetic sense.

Do we consciously plan the location of the focal point?  Perhaps.  But just as likely is that, we place it because a specific location appeals to our intuitive aesthetic.  It looks right, and feels right to us.  Similarly, a sense of tension and dynamic balance is often initially based on a “gut feel” at least as much as on conscious planning, although taking time to evaluate a painting in progress will often reveal to us how we may consciously improve the effect.

Yes, we consciously select our palette colors, but our experience with having used these colors in the past informs our decision about which specific paints to use with which others.  We have learned which pairings work effectively together to create the effects we want, so we don’t become bogged down in selecting which of our many options we will use from each hue family.

We often hear people say, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”  They are speaking of their intuitive aesthetic—innate but uninformed preferences.

As we learn more about the principles of artistic design, we begin to learn why we find certainly features preferable.  And this, in turn, allows us to incorporate those principles into our work to increase its effectiveness and appeal.

Most of us, especially so-called “self-taught” artists, frequently glean information and ideas from many other artists—both contemporaries and those who have preceded us.  But the chances are that we may miss (or misconstrue) many of the principles that could be helpful to us.  Whether we have a formal art education or have learned from various sources over time, it is in our best interest to continue learning as much as possible in relation to our artistic pursuits.

As we gain both understanding and experience, our intuition gradually gives way to subconscious decision-making based on our experience and informed options.  Yes, we initially make some conscious decisions about the painting’s purpose, materials, size, and palette.  We consciously plan a design and approach.  But once the initial planning stage is complete, it frees us to get into “the zone,” in which we make fewer conscious decisions and allow our subconscious intuition direct most of our remaining choices.

You can find a concise overview of many of the principles of artistic composition, in my ebook Elements of Great Composition: A Quick Reference for Photographers and Other Visual Artists.

Elements of Great Composition

“But why?”

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

April fools?  In my opinion, fools are those who never bother to ask “Why?”

"Why?"  by Charlotte Mertz (watercolor 5"x7," #180306w)

“Why?” by Charlotte Mertz (watercolor 5″x7,” #180306w)

If you have ever spent much time with a three-year-old, you will probably have heard a chorus of “Why?” questions. Each answer or explanation only invites an additional “Why?” which in turn is followed by another, often so incessantly that an exasperated parent may finally fall back on one of the old standbys, “Because that’s just the way it is,” or “Because I said so!”

St. Paul wrote (I Cor. 13:11) “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”  But one of the things we often do as we leave childhood is to lose our childlike sense of wonder and inquisitiveness, as well. As adults, we may have accepted the say-so of perceived authority figures—parents, teachers, officials, celebrities, and even our peers—to such an extent that we no longer ask them or ourselves, “Why?”

We learn by being inquisitive.  As adults, it is important to understand the how’s and why’s of life.  As artists, we need to revitalize that sense of wonder and curiosity, to more often ask “Why?”

Why, for instance, is it preferable to paint wet into wet in some situations, while at other times wet on dry application might be better?  Why does the paint respond differently to these techniques?  Why does the dry-brush technique work with some brushes but not so well with others, and on some papers but not on others?  Why does watercolor paper behave the way it does?  Why does the paint move on the surface (or soak in) the way it does?  Why do different pigments behave differently from one another?  Why do some lift off the surface of the paper but others do not?

And again, why does an object reflect so many colors that are different from the “local color” most people would use to describe it?  Why aren’t shadows all black?  Why is the color of sunlight different at various times of the day?

Finding the answers to all these “why’s” and many others will help us find satisfactory answers to the dilemmas we face in every painting we undertake.  Knowing the cause of certain behaviors allows us to either avoid them or better depict or utilize them to greater advantage in our work.

Sometimes the best way to answer “Why?” is to seek out the answers through trial and error or simply by closer observation.  Do you take time to play, experiment, test theories, explore possibilities, and simply observe?  If not, why not?  And why not start now?

 

 

A Song of Hyacinths

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

I was reminded recently of a poem, “Hyacinths,” various versions of which I have seen credited to John Greenleaf Whittier and to Sadi.  I favor one of the variations from the latter:

 

“If of thy earthly goods thou art bereft,

And from their meager store

Two loaves alone to thee are left,

Sell one, and with the dole

Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

 

The specific version of the poem seems immaterial when we consider the theme—that even in difficult times, when our spirits are low, it is more important to maintain our hope and positive outlook than to stress out over our circumstances.  Hyacinths are spring-time bloomers, representing renewal and hope.  The point is that we should seek out beauty even in the midst of loss, and cling to hope even in the worst of times.

“Blue Hyacinths”  by Charlotte Mertz (10”x8” watercolor, 180208w)

“Blue Hyacinths” by Charlotte Mertz (10”x8” watercolor, 180208w)

Such beauty may be found in a flower, the sparkle of sunlight on water, or a favorite scent.  It may be heard in a bird’s song, the purr of a cat, or in an encouraging voice.  We can find comfort in memories, or find hope in dreams for the future.  Just as a hyacinth’s scent fills our nostrils and our lungs, the sense of hope refills us with energy to face whatever challenges we have to overcome.

In the painting of “Blue Hyacinths,” above, I used a “negative” technique, painting around some of the petals to bring out their shape.  Because sometimes we appreciate the little things more because of the darkness surrounding them.

What hyacinths are feeding your soul today?

 

 

Characteristics of Place

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

The transition from winter to summer seemed very sudden for us in Florida this year.  One of the few natural clues in the past few weeks that we were experiencing “spring” was the dramatic fall of leaves from the live oaks after daytime temperatures rose suddenly from the 50s and 60s(F) into the mid-to-upper-80s within a week.

Unlike most deciduous trees, live oaks cling to their leaves through the fall and winter, releasing the small, drying leaves only as the new growth of spring leaves begins.  So, in conjunction with our winter temperatures largely mimicking summer temperatures in more northern regions, (and aside from the fact that we don’t get much of a cold reprieve for more than about a week, ever) sometimes it feels as though our seasons are a bit backward on the Florida peninsula.

Hanging Moss in Oak Park, by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" oil, #180207-o)

Hanging Moss in Oak Park, by Charlotte Mertz (8″x10″ oil, #180207-o)

It was a good reminder to teach my students to watch for the unique characteristics of not only the specific vegetation in the locales in which we paint, but other identifiable aspects typical of the region.  These may include rock and soil color and configurations, species of trees and shrubs in the area, wildlife native to the region, and architecture designed either to address climatic conditions or to incorporate notable regional cultural influences.

These regional differences are one of the reasons we travel – to recognize and experience both environmental and cultural differences from other areas we’ve known.  I believe, too, that it is one of the reasons plein air painting has become so popular in recent years.  Not only are the physical characteristics of a specific region different from those in other places, but the prevailing atmospheric conditions can be recognized, as well.  Artists often refer to it as “the quality of light.”

Atmosphere is influenced by a number of different factors.  These factors include level of humidity; active precipitation; prevailing winds; air pollution; mist, fog, or salt spray; type and depth of cloud coverage; the colors reflected from the earth’s surface onto the underside of clouds; and even altitude relative to sea level, which can affect the density of the air itself and the light’s refraction among any airborne particles.

As I write this blog, the air is heavy, dense with humidity.  Colors are less saturated, values are condensed into narrower bands of lights and darks than usual.  On days like this my grandmother would comment that the distant side of the lake on which she lived appeared particularly far away, whereas on clear, cloudless days she might say the far shore appeared especially close.  It is this kind of difference that, as an artist, I try to be aware of, to establish in my work a sense of the atmospheric conditions in a specific place.  It’s a lesson I mean to extend to my students.