Thursday, September 30, 2010

In Plein Sight

Painting 'en plein air,' outdoors in front of the subject matter, is a great experience. A place of your choice, in a setting that's appealing to you, and enjoying the fresh air is a great way to spend many hours in productive pursuit of art.

However, it can be challenging for many reasons, including weather changes, continual movement of light and shadows, hauling all of the necessary equipment, and at times there's just too much in front of you to paint.

First, the equipment.

Many years ago, packing for a day of painting meant remembering to bring paints, easel, brushes, rags, canvases, turpentine, and wine and cheese. You could find a rock nearby to balance your palette on and maybe you had a towel or blanket to sit on when you took a break away from painting to relax a bit and check out your creation.

You painted under the sun, in full abandon, and hopefully came home with a great painting and a nice tan. I remember some artists who painted in their bathing suits and would take their breaks in the surf.

These days it's much more complicated!

Not too keen on steadying palette and goodies on nearby pieces of earth, as we mature, one needs a small table or at least a light folding chair with pockets for glasses and bottles. These days you can become dehydrated out there, who knew that, so water has become the beverage of choice. Now, we have to carry gallons of it and, along with the aforementioned art supplies, we have become aware of how dangerous it has been out there in the wild.

A very good artist will not go out without their SPF50, bug spray, wide brimmed hat, umbrella, and alcohol swabs. Long pants are tucked carefully into socks, in hopes to avoid ticks and perhaps other creepy-crawlers, and a light shirt, hopefully with some SPF protection embedded in it, stays on the artist all day while they are out to prevent the slightest hint of coloration...the only red should be from that tube and placed on the palette for painting only. We also have to remember towelettes for washing our hands between painting and eating, as we learned that lead and other chemicals in the paints can make their way to our fingers, eating utensils, glasses, and bottles and that seems to be a bad thing. Be careful to keep your drinking glass away from your turps so that you don't end up washing out your brushes in your wine and grabbing the solvent cleaner for a quick swig!!! I only did that once and can attest that wine does not clean your brushes well and turpentine has a long way to go to challenge even a cheap Merlot.

One of my biggest challenges, apart from setting up all of the stuff needed to complete a painting mission, is sticking to drawing and painting the subject that attracted me in the first place and not including the entire vista on the canvas. You want to paint a wave crashing against a rock, then do need to include the whole shore, every wave, the seals and lobsters frolicking in front of you, and the Queen Mary sailing by in the background!

What to do? Well, take a picture with your digital camera. You can use it as a frame to focus on what you want to paint, you have it to take home with you, and you can print it out later to use again.

In days prior to the digital age, we could Kodak the moment and have the picture later, but most times it was sketch, sketch and re-sketch, and then use that drawing as reference as you were painting.

Anyway, when you can't muster the energy to pack up and head out on this grand safari, paint indoors. Take a picture of your favorite spot, maybe do a quick sketch, and head to the studio.

That's what I've done recently. I've included here a seascape that I just started...what you are seeing here is the result of about an hour's worth of effort...some lines remain, I've blocked out some rocks, and I'll continue to look at the picture I have to work out lights and darks and the placement of waves and water movement and we'll see where it goes. I'll keep you posted.

I do like painting water and have to do it either by traveling five to eight hours, being landlocked in New York State, or painting from pictures. The great thing about landscape and seascape painting is that you don't have to worry about replicating the rocks and waves exactly as they were, as long as the painting works, as no one is going to say, "That's not what it looks like!"

Okay, I'll amend that. Unless you're Guy Corriero or one of his students who have transversed Monhegan ad infinitum and recognize each little piece of sea glass and its location year to year and know the exact spot of this attempt here, it wouldn't be a big deal.

In comparison, a portrait or a painting of someones home necessitates exactness...nature says, "Grab the essence." Along the vast shore line of the eastern seaboard, forgetting the island habitues in this case, this place could be anywhere.

So, in my little eight by ten room, under a special light, free from UV exposure, I am painting 'outdoors.' No worries about ticks and mosquitoes, I can start the process without lathing chemicals on my skin. The easel is set up, tables and chairs nearby, no lugging, setting up and taking down. I can leave my umbrella packed neatly away, dress comfortably for the day, and maybe even not wear shoes, and keep my wine bottle in the frig upstairs. If I forgot to bring the cheese, just hop up the steps and pull it out. Oh, and I can leave the TV or CD player on and have some company, too.

Easier, yes...but something is missing...the company of other artists, that special smell of the combination of turpentine, oil paints, tick spray and suntan lotion, bugs floating in your wine or crawling around your canvas, the disappearance of that shadow from in front of that rock (how many hours have I been out here), or that great story about how you were almost done with that three by five foot seascape that was going to sell for lots of money, when you took in a deep breath of that salty sea air. Closing your eyes briefly to focus on the smells of the ocean and feeling the gentle spray on your face, you open them again quickly when you realize that it's more than just a spray, more like a bucket of water being thrown at you, and you watch as your easel and painting attached to it are swept off the rocks in front of you, in plain sight of everyone, or should I say, "plein sight," to become one with the sea.

In my case, I was most fortunate...I was just far back enough away from the easel and the coast's end that I didn't go with it and I had my wine glass in one hand and the bottle in the other, at the time, so not all was lost!!!

More to come, as the painting progresses...

Friday, September 17, 2010

In Step with Summer

Speaking of steps (as per the title of this posting), we recently traveled to Watkin's Glen so that the wife could show me the gorge located there. She had visited there earlier this year and wanted me to see it. We thought we'd do a two day trip, but it dwindled to one and we made a dash to the Finger Lakes the Saturday before Labor Day.

The weather didn't look promising. It did rain on the trip there (four hours door to door), but when we arrived the clouds parted and the sun shone down on us as though to say, "Welcome, we knew you were coming and we want you to enjoy this place of natural beauty."

Okay, it wasn't that dramatic, but it did stop raining for a bit and we were able to make our way through the gorge, a sprinkle here and there, but no deluges.

Back to the steps...the story board at the base of the gorge notes about 800 steps. Intrigued, I started counting as we made our way up the gorge. Not a small stream wending its way around the base of a small hill, as I remember the gorges of my youth, it's a cavernous expanse cut into the side of a small mountain. We made our way up 787 steps (yes, I counted each and every one of them), ascending hundreds of feet as we took in the views.

Fortunately, I can multi-task. Counting steps, taking in the views, chatting with the wife about the many formations, climbing the steps, dodging rain drops, inspecting water falls, and dealing with hordes of photo hungry visitors kept me real busy. My head was spinning when we got to the top. Not sure if it was the altitude or all of that do you relax at a park when you have so much to do?

The place is quite amazing. The gorge is at least a hundred feet deep in spots (maybe more) and at one time, about 10,000 years ago they say, it was all level ground that led to a large waterfalls. The glaciers (those darn pesky several mile thick ice cubes of time gone by) and subsequent running waters tore through rock to take a waterfall that emptied directly into Seneca Lake and created a series of many smaller falls and streams to end up in the same place. Seems like a lot of work, over a long time, to accomplish the same goal, but what the is an amazing site and that's nature for you.

Someone had the idea to make a walkway, with those sept-hundred plus steps, so many could take in the views (and pay for the privilege) and walk under and around falls, get splashed on by water running off the sides of the hills with droplets bouncing off the pavements and protective walls, and it's a beautiful couple of hours. At one point, where the largest falls comes in front of the walkway, seemingly hundreds of people posed for loved ones who tried to capture their visage "under the curtain of water." It's a small space and I kept getting stuck within groups of photographees...I'm certain there are scores of people looking at their pictures, now that they're home, saying, "Who's that guy? He looks like someone famous!" In a hundred years, historians will gather pictures from various groups to study the cultural habits of us humans and find one common link from that day of photos at Watkins in each picture...then I'll be famous!

We keep moving. Shallow and deep pools, streams, the aforementioned falls, moss, flora and fauna (and who was the third fairy in Cinderella?), and at the very top the quintessential state operated gift shop! What a site...I looked to see if they carried little Statue's of Liberty, I lost mine somewhere. No luck. But they did have a snack bar, and rest rooms, and a bus to take you down the mountain if you didn't want to hoof it back.

Not to be detracted from our morning of exploring nature, and noting we could avoid the steps by taking one of two trails back down, we chose the Indian Trail. I am a bit bewildered that it hasn't been renamed the Native American Trail, but that's another blog.

Off we went, and it was smooth going. About halfway down we ran into a "trail closed due to storm damage" sign and were directed back to the stairs. Fortunately for us, we got a second chance to stand under the falls with all of the people with cameras trying to take pictures of all of their friends and family, and getting me in most of their shots, again, as we tried to squeeze by those who appear to be walking behind the curtain of water and stopping me from making much progress for a bit of time (although now I'm thinking they were trying to get me in the shot for better aesthetics). Not as dramatic as Victoria Falls in Africa, one could do a bit of photo cropping and make it seem that one was surviving torrents of water!!! Cool!!!

I would recommend the trip highly not only for those who enjoy the outdoors and the happenings of nature, but also for the fact that they conveniently located the gorge near 600 wineries! Guess you know where we spent the afternoon. More on that some other time.

We ended the day with a boat ride on Seneca Lake. A couple with a small child sat in front of us and through the bulk of the trip the child was more fascinated with me than with the surf and turf all around. I have that effect on people, you know. I think I'm in a couple of their family pictures now, too! This is all going to work for me, some day!

Anywho, I recovered from the ascension of the steps at Watkins Glen (there are a couple of "just eighty steps in this group," heart pounders for certain), thanks in part to generous applications of Yoga Balm to knee joints and a very nice Chardonnay or two, and we are talking of returning again. I will say this about that day. It is a spectacular park, the scenery is stunning, New York State does not make a great red wine (one with the punch the French can deliver, sorry), and I'm going to start charging for being in people's pictures...I realize fame will come, but I won't be around when that happens and I would like some of the cash now!