Under a wonderful fall sun accompanied with nice fall breezes, a bunch of us met at an apple and pumpkin-picking farm this weekend for a bit of painting. Hundreds of people beat us to the place on this beautiful fall Sunday, with scores of children ready to look at the pigs, goats, alpaca, chickens and other animals on the grounds. It was the quintessential fall scene and a great vibe as everyone dragged their wheelbarrows around to gather up apples or pumpkins. Many of the people enjoying this annual tradition spoke languages other than English, including German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. Such a beautiful setting makes you want to come back!
With another lovely day to enjoy, it was time today to join the Maryland ‘plein air painters’ again. This meant crossing over the Potomac River and setting up a watercolor easel in a lovely small suburban park near the old town center of Kensington. Plenty of shade and breezes made it a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Everyone worked in their medium of choice, whether pastels, oil, acrylic or watercolor–there’s no right or wrong here, and nothing to hear but the sound of water falling from the fountain in the middle of the park.
(A note on materials: These days I am finding the Canson Heritage brand of watercolor paper nice to work with and, perhaps surprisingly, on a par with the Arches brand (and, unfortunately, just as expensive). I picked up a higher end version of Hahnemühle watercolor paper while in Germany and found it to be quite outstanding, allowing for brilliant colors but perhaps subtly with less “sizing’ than Arches or Canson. This latter paper is hard to get in the U.S.
Regarding brushes, the German-made DaVinci Kolinsky Red Sable watercolor brushes seem to do a good job with keeping a very fine point; I have a #6 and a #8, and can tell that in the hands of a professional, they would more than meet the tasks at hand. And for me, certainly, they are more than adequate.)
My younger brother, who has been mentioned in the last few blog posts, never understood my fascination with art materials. (Indeed, he privately might have viewed it as a disorder; well, once he did say “that’s crazy,” so there’s a clue.) He used the first sketchbook (Stillman&Birn Alpha series) I gave him for the last two years, and was on its last pages during our recent trip in Europe. He was captivated, however, by the fine flow of the Platinum Carbon pen, and also the practicality of the water brush, both of which were gifts from me. He had none of the interest others have in whether this or that paint is “student” or “artist” grade, nor in trying different sketchbooks (I’d supplied him with some backups). He wanted his sketches to be in chronological order in the original sketchbook, and never wavered from this. As an artist, he had a beautiful, light style–and even mischievous style, as in a few sketches of people (possibly even us, his family members, but he would not say) on the beach at the Outer Banks. He also used sketches in his work. He could carry his entire art kit in a small zipper pouch designed for a looseleaf folder, and he never set foot in an art supply store, so far as I know. (He wasn’t much a shopper, to put it mildly.) My brother believed in “quality not quantity” and lived this. Special memories, may they live on forever.
What’s better than a riverfront campsite at a beautiful campground on a warm April day? Not much, it seemed, this past weekend. In such a gorgeous spot, it was great to have some watercolor painting gear with me. What a relaxing way to practice painting lights and darks in watercolor. And no Internet service to be had for miles around: so, no news.
I tried the technique of sketching first in a Sharpie pen (brown or black) to indicate where on the page the darkest darks would go. Then I ‘painted’ over those darks with some water-proof bistre ink. From there I proceeded to the lighter washes, and then some details. It seemed to work.
With nothing to distract me, and no “must-do’s” around,
it was wonderful to be able to experiment in this way, enjoying the gentle breezes and shade where I was sitting.
Nearby some friends relaxed, including one lounging in a hammock he’d brought along.
This is a place known more for fishing, kayaking and rafting…but it is also a prime spot for painting, I’ve discovered. From the time you opened the flap to your tent at the first light of dawn, there were sights that demanded to be painted!
Blog post writing has taken a bit of a backseat lately. Preparation for classes could be one excuse, but it wouldn’t be true. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing more thinking than drawing in this age of discontinuity. The recent blast of winter in this area complete with snow and ice this year sadly has been too much for the many blossoms and flowers that proliferated here during an unseasonably warm February. Even the geese on a nearby lake are a bit confused by the eccentric weather.
This sort of disorientation (yes, that exhibited by the geese–as in “where are we?”) has been mirrored by the befuddlement of many people around the world at the jarring reports of current political events, especially domestically–more on that below. Just as the early blossoms thought that the Spring in February was real, we humans are confused as to the political climate we are living through….
Looking back to look forward sometimes is useful, as paging through older sketchbooks can remind one. While looking ahead to a forthcoming exhibition of my watercolors and sketches, I came across a few of my sketches from the past:
Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…
On the geopolitical level of human affairs, the emerging palette is more complicated–even “complex”– a crucial distinction not yet as appreciated as it could be, though “complexity”–as in complex systems–is something we spend a lot of time on in the university graduate class I teach. Making sense of complex problems is a necessary starting point to resolving them–and is too often a (very intellectually-demanding and time-consuming) step skipped over, as we have recently seen an example of in the healthcare arena.
Similarly understanding this moment in our collective human history requires us to draw from the experience “palettes” of a wide variety of people in order to understand our true options going forward. I would include in this “experience palette” respected contemporary professors of history, such as Dr. Timothy Snyder–whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in person at a local bookstore recently. People doing fresh thinking about economics also have an essential role
to play in the efforts to apply different palettes to our common future. And a look back to the founders and founding documents of this American nation would also be essential, as I just did a week ago by wandering through the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia again.
It’s true, at least for me, that once you become accustomed to painting–and more vitally, living and making choices– in ‘plein air,’ it’s harder to settle for bleak cold days–whether due to the weather or the political climate.
We can call up sketches of the past to help us make sense of the present. Are the things which divide us still more important than taking stock in a clear-eyed way of what actually has happened and what pathways forward lie ahead? These processes are sometimes known as “scenario practice,” “forward reasoning,” and simply “foresight”–also processes we focus on in class. There is no end to the usefulness of learning we can gain from those who have studied the past, I’ve concluded. As Professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his work linking the history of Eastern Europe to our present, the choice is (still) ours to make.
Another gorgeous fall day today, with temperatures near 70 degrees, saw lots of families out hiking along the C&O Canal which runs along the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Several ‘plein air’ painting enthusiasts worked alongside the Canal, facing either the river or the canal; a path for hikers and bikers runs between them for gorgeous mile after gorgeous mile.
In such a perfect circumstance, it was a great day to try an experiment: using charcoal with watercolor as was done to such great effect by late-19th century and early-20th century French painter, Paul Signac (who also used black Conte crayon and graphite with watercolors). The canal next to us was drained nearly dry so there wasn’t an opportunity to practice painting reflections on the water except for a little puddle near the bridge over the canal. However, even without water, the whole scene was already challenging enough.
The final verdict: At first it didn’t seem like it would work, but certainly if the watercolor is added first and allowed to dry, then charcoal can be applied to make accents or give depth. Here is my first attempt to do so (with a charcoal pencil), and I think it’s going to be something I’ll want to keep trying in the future.
Painting in the outdoors, or “plein air,” is a popular past-time for artists and great practice for everyone who wants to learn to appreciate their surroundings with new eyes. I am most likely to be found doing this on weekends when I have painting pals who want to be outdoors. But a few (most, actually) of the people with whom I correspond do not have much time to paint whether in or out of doors, so I thought I’d write a post about what art is teaching me about readiness for the unexpected.
The other day, I found myself in a setting devoted to sustainable gardening and wild meadows where my subject turned out to be a small garden statue of the ancient Greek god of the wilds, fields, and flocks, Pan, with his man-like body and a goat’s hind legs. The word “panic” is derived, I’ve since learned, from Pan’s name.
This subject promised to be challenging, especially given changing circumstances. Sunlight vied with overcast skies, changing the shadows on the figure every few minutes. In addition, a wedding was scheduled for these very grounds in a short time, so planning ahead was of the essence. First off was a quick sketch to familiarize myself with this scene, and gain some idea of lights and darks.
Such a sketch can boost confidence for the next step, though it is true that you never know how a sketch is going to turn out and many sketchbooks, like diaries, are private partly for this reason. Nor, increasingly, do we know what we will face, so sketching (or a rehearsal or a “scenario”of any kind) is a way to increase our readiness for the unexpected, a subject that received more attention in the early days of this blog.
Seeing Things Differently and Avoiding Panic Learning how to see in different ways, sometimes very quickly–including connecting with others who see things differently–is fundamental to survival, not only for the artist. It has been called various things including cognitive agility, mindfulness, and “rapid reflection.” But I’ve observed that it often doesn’t get the attention you’d expect for something so critical. In fact, in too many places, people are incentivized to ignore the unfamiliar and to treat it as irrelevant until an altogether too-obvious change in the status quo forces (some of) them to reconsider…and sometimes that is too late. (Even in the absence of crisis, such a disinterest in the world can harden into a lack of curiosity which calcifies one’s situational awareness at a dangerously low level. This has proven in the past to be particularly bad for living species of all kinds–not to mention modern-age businesses–and is especially risky in today’s world where we–and all our things, such as watches, cars, and phones–are more interconnected than ever before.)
Topping off this day of plein air painting was the opportunity to see the movie, “Sully,” on the inspirational pilot and the first responders on that incredible day when a fully-loaded passenger plan had to land on the Hudson River. From painting Pan in the wilds, I was confronted with wild scenes that would leave most of us panic-stricken if we were in the midst of them.
But this is a film of human strength and prowess, strong team work, and genuine leadership. From the pilot and his co-pilot, to the crew, the ferryboat operators, air traffic control, and many other responders, the rapid response to this unprecedented event demonstrated the value of consciously preparing (across disciplines, stovepipes, and other boundaries) for the unexpected. In this case, one imagines that such pre-crisis teamwork contributed to enhancing preparedness for an unprecedented situation. Remembering the importance of the “human factor”, as per Sully when he explains himself to the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), is the critical difference. His performance seems to be an example of “rapid reflection” crisis management in action; this film carefully adheres to the facts of the crisis as it actually unfolded and, therefore, truly is a “must-see” for all those in top management, whatever the field.
I’ve been reminded regularly that true artists respect unintended consequences whereas experts of other stripes too often don’t. Artists regularly experiment with techniques and materials, and absorb others’ approaches like sponges; many experts of other stripes too often don’t. There is seemingly an important paradox in this.
In an age when many clearly believe it is more acceptable to bash experts than to emulate them, the aspiring artist knows that study of others’ solidly perfected techniques–and, beyond this, historical appreciation as to what has been humanly possible and achieved over time–leads to greater consciousness of our individual shortcomings and more rapid recognition of the truly exceptional (as the film, Sully, also reminds us). Recognizing these gaps can inspire us to be more curious and to learn more. At the same time, experts themselves must prepare for circumstances never before seen (and, thus, for which there is no sketch, textbook or field of expertise). Indeed, a certain cognitive and doctrinal flexibility seems necessary, at a minimum, lest very deep expertise lead us to think that everything can be scripted, measured, and predicted ahead of time–as the differences between the NTSB and Sully demonstrated in the film.
The artist with skill in applying paint (or ink or any other medium) to paper or canvas–and expertise such as pilot Sully’s extraordinary tacit knowledge of the limits of his airplane, his ability to derive quickly from different inputs the most sensible course of action, as well as his abiding awareness of the value of human life–demonstrate human capacities that total reliance on computers, for instance, or checklists can never achieve.
So, while it is true that you generally don’t want the pilot of your commercial jet to be creative in getting you from point A to B, the movie, Sully, does show us that adaptation in the face of the unexpected requires a degree of mindfulness (and openness to ongoing learning) that cannot be assumed. At their best, therefore, artists and experts of all types, whether commercially successful or not, seem to combine deep knowledge with a degree of cognitive flexibility that is hard to sustain from deep within “stovepipes” of all types, from academia to industry. Dealing effectively with this conundrum seems to me to one of the most important things we could do these days.
During a plein air competition this week hosted by The Arts of Great Falls, Virginia, I had the opportunity to work on the grounds of one of the top French restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, L’Auberge Chez Francois.
Braving unseasonably hot days (over 90 degrees!) was made easier by the very attentive staff of this deservedly highly-rated restaurant, who came outside to the patio dining area several times to offer a cold glass of sparkling water or iced tea. This was very thoughtful, and probably outside their job description as their paying customers were inside the air-conditioned restaurant. As it happened, I had my own ice water with me so did not need to accept their offers but their hospitality made what could have been a somewhat uncomfortable setting (due to the heat and occasional biting bugs) more pleasant.
The competition continues (and ends) today but a day already in this heat has left me content to submit only this one watercolor now on sale at the sponsors’ art gallery. (There is something satisfying about going straight from the field to a gallery even if it is not a juried exhibition!)
This experience is yet another reminder that ‘plein air’ is dominated by oil painters, it seems. The history of watercolor’s admission into the ranks of accepted mediums for serious art is a fascinating one on which I started a blog post some months ago, and may try to finish soon. These on-site ventures out into the world of artists (and gracious restaurant staff) are fun tests of one’s ability to frame and execute a concept quickly. My approach was to go out one day and scout the place for a scene, and then to sketch it in pencil. The following day I set aside three hours to do the watercolor. My hope was that the white tablecloths of the scene would provide a brighter contrast; the end result was less effective in this regard than I wanted, but dissatisfaction can be a powerful motivator. In any case, I popped it into a frame and the sponsors now have it on display. How fun! And I will be happy to take it home again, if it doesn’t sell, as a memory of this experience.