Or, how I reverted back to the simple thrill of plein air painting in watercolor
One reason I love plein air painting (for more on what “plein air” is, see my previous post) is because any time the artistic muse inspires me, I can grab a few supplies, jump outdoors and boom: start painting.
Watercolor especially, as opposed to oil painting, appeals to me because it seems so simple. And, it is.
Until we complicate it.
For example, for watercolor painting, all I need is a couple of brushes, paints, water, and almost any kind of paper. It’s portable, works up fast, and dries fast. It can be used expertly for either sketching in the field or for finished pieces in the field or studio. Easy-peasy, right?
Have you heard about the “best laid plans…” and how they often go awry?
Simplicity gives way to curiosity and … complexity.
In the very early days, I fell in love with brushes. I had to experience the difference between the sables and the synthetics. Then I found that a flat brush was so deliciously bold and assertive, why not have at least two of those: a half-inch and a one-inch? The tips on round brushes were so magnificently fun to use, how many was the “perfect” number to keep on hand? Let alone filberts, rigors, mop, scrub, and fan brushes. It was dizzying.
“A Bad Brush is a Terrible Thing”
And, what about the paints? I was doing fine with a little Cotman “field kit,” until a friend said, “Oh, I have one of those, but I don’t like the colors in it, so I take the trays out and fill the compartments with the paint I like.”
At that time, I didn’t even know the trays could come out! So many possibilities! I then carried all the little trays in a plastic bag along with filling the compartments with my favorite palette of colors. Plus, I carried the tubes of paint in case I needed to refill the pans.
Next I realized I didn’t like Cotman paint. It’s a student grade and has more filler than I want. So of course I needed to experiment with different paint. I went on streaks comparing every red for the perfect Marilyn Monroe ‘’lipstick red”. I spent oodles of time and money searching for the perfect blue, then yellow, then green. Likewise through many other pigments and special binders and additives. I have dozens of sheets testing colors for lifting, staining, granulating, transparency, opaqueness, color-fastness, and pigment-biases that affect how paints mix. I tested the paints recommended by this famous artist, or this other one. Then, by this teacher or this other workshop leader. Ugh. It was work and expensive.
The most important criteria—if I “liked” the color or the feel of the paint—always seemed to fall to the bottom of my analysis.
It seems crazy to read it now. Have you experienced some of this, too?
For years, a dear friend and I traipsed into parks and urban areas almost every Saturday to paint. Honestly, for a while my “portable medium” included:
- Cell phone
- Business cards
- Note pad on a clip board with a pencil to take names and emails
- Handful of fliers or post cards about my work and upcoming shows
- Few boxes of my note cards in case someone wanted to buy some
- My purse with all my normal purse stuff in it
- Large “carry-on” type canvas bag
- Plastic palette with about 24 paint trays (many with two colors of paint),
- Extra tubes of paint in case I ran out
- Two water bottles, one for my painting and one for me,
- Sometimes an auxiliary palette with colors specific to the setting (like azure blues for the beach)
- Reference photos
- Collection of paper towels and rags,
- Fistful of brushes
- Art masking fluid and designated brushes,
- Variety of papers in various weights, brands, and sizes,
- Chinese watercolor paints in a separate palette and accompanying brushes,
- Folding chair
- Small folding table
- Sometimes a French easel
- Large piece of plastic to sit on in case I plunk down where I can’t fit my chair (like on a large rock),
- Two different sized small-ish bottles to use for water while I am actually painting,
- Box of colored pencils (for highlights and wonderful little details that I like to add),
- Petite plastic bag with half-a-dozen watercolor/water-soluble pencils for details that are not quite right in colored pencils or don’t quite work in watercolor,
- 22” x 28” Masonite art board to steady my work,
- “Bull dog clips” and rubber bands to keep my work on the Masonite board
- Charcoal and graphite pencils, with plenty of good quality erasers
- Pencil sharpeners, several for different size pencils
- Tissue (for effects in my paintings, or for ordinary blowing of my nose)
- Sponges, natural and “sink sponges” (for effects)
- Salt (for effects)
- Spray bottle of water
- Spray bottle of rubbing alcohol (for effects)
- Drinking straws (for effects)
- Sun glasses
- Sun block
- Sun hat
- Teeny box of raisins and granola bars for a snack
- And at the bottom of this very large canvas bag, is my 3” x 5” Cotman field kit
Really. There was probably more in that bag that thankfully I have forgotten about.
There is nothing inherently wrong with including any of this. But after lugging things across hill and valley, I realized that I didn’t use most of it when I was painting en plein air—or even in my studio.
I’m not sure why I dragged all that around. Maybe I lugged it with me to reassure myself that in some upside-down way, dragging a bunch of gear around proved that I was a professional artist.
Luckily I ascended through that phase to a more lofty level in the artists’ hierarchy of self-worth.
The weight of your gear or the name on your palette
is not an indicator of the quality or value of your artwork.
For me now, I put a $10 bill in my pocket, grab my keys, driver’s license, and cell phone. Then, in a small zippered bag, I have a round brush—maybe a flat brush too, a few sheets of paper, a field kit (for more on field kits see previous post), a vessel of water—and then amazingly, off I go.
I don’t have to have a chair and a table. I can sit on the back bumper of my car, or find a rock or a picnic table. I might lean against a tree or sit on the ground.
Let’s say you have to make a speedy exit. Maybe a thunder storm is on the horizon approaching fast.
Think about how difficult it is to grab all your gear if it is heavy and all over the place.
It reminds me of the genius of the cradle boards created by Native Americans.
Structured as a backboard of wood or basketry, with soft straps to hold the infant securely against the backing, they were designed for mothers to carry their infants on their backs as they foraged for food or firewood. The purpose of a of cradle board was to maximize protecting the child and the portability of the child, as well as providing intimacy between the mother and child.
The cradle board was positioned on the back so the child was at the same eye level as mother. While the mother worked and harvested, the cradle board could be worn or leaned against a tree or a large boulder. Or when the group was traveling, the cradle board could be strapped to a sled carrying the family’s essentials for daily life. The simplicity of the cradle board allowed the small child to visually explore his or her world the entire day from a vantage point of the trunk of a tree, a sled, or his mom’s back.
When the mom sensed danger, she could easily grab the board—like a back pack—and hurry off to safety.
Citation: Hail, Barbara A., et al. Gifts of Pride and Love: Kiowa and Comanche Cradles Edited by Barbara A. Hail; Introduction by N. Scott Momaday; Contributing Authors, Jacob Ahtone … [Et Al.]. 7 Vol. Bristol, R.I.: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University, 2000. Print.
A dear friend of mine, and superb artist, Billyo O’Donnell, says, “Any plein air painter who takes more than six brushes with him is just insecure.” Gosh it took me years to come to that same conclusion.
Honestly, almost everything can be done with a minimal amount of gear. And all the rest of the stuff is still back in my studio, waiting for me if I need it.
Oh… and about the experiments with paints and additives, etc. Again, there’s nothing wrong with going to all that trouble and expense. But, I suggest, trust your own experience. If you are accumulating a few paints that you love and they work for you: GO WITH IT. Keep it simple. It’s not the gear, it’s the creativity and execution that counts.
Funny how we can overcomplicate things.
For more on a first-person narrative about life as a Lakota, please read this book written by Luther Standing Bear, in 1933. It is heart-warming, intimate, detailed, poignant and beautifully written. Your perception of Native Americans will be enhanced by reading this book.
The description from Amazon includes:
“When Standing Bear returned to the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation after sixteen years’ absence, his dismay at the condition of his people may well have served as a catalyst for the writing of this book, first published in 1933. In addition to describing the customs, manners, and traditions of the Teton Sioux, Standing Bear also offered general comments about the importance of Native cultures and values and the status of Indian peoples in American society”.