A good friend and wonderful photographer commented on an article that I ran across, about travelling to new places to paint. “The only thing that I find limiting in this article is the apparent need to travel to find subjects to interpret. I find Nature so full of magic that there really is no need to travel to discover awesome subjects, they are already right where you happen to be, paint and brushes in hand”.
I replied that a very cool artist named Monet said exactly the same thing a while back. I do think most artists need an occasional change of venue in order to charge batteries and crank up the inspiration. However, when I have travelled with plein air painting friends, it was more about the time away to paint, the sharing of knowledge and experiences with other artists, that re-energized me. And further, I have been reluctant to join painting trips to Europe or the Rockies because I would feel handicapped by the artistic vision of a tourist, and I can't stand cute pictures.
When I look back on some of the more exotic places where I have painted, it is the people that I met that come to mind first; Artists like Bruno Cote who befriended our group in Charlevoix and painted with us on numerous occasions when we returned to the Region; Robert Genn, who parked his truck behind my car in Banff, and stayed to watch me work and chat while I painted; Charles Movalli and Betty lou Schlem, workshops in Greenville NY and Gloucester, Mass. All of them helped me to be a better painter, but the locations were definitely secondary. And, in fact, I was discouraged with my plein-air efforts to paint mountains and seascapes, because I felt like a visitor, and that it would take years to get to feel at home with the subject matter.
And so, I still travel to paint; to the Lanark Highlands, Algonquin Park and Ottawa Valley - places that I have known from childhood. Where memories, friendships and familiarity fill my paintings.
Guess I agree with Monet and my friend,
It has been said that the amount of time a visitor spends looking at a painting at an art show is around 3-5 seconds. The viewer pauses, glances and moves on. That’s one reason why a point of interest in a composition is important: to grasp the attention of the viewer long enough that they are drawn in to look further, for the message and the beauty and more.
What defines a point of interest? Like many definitions and labels in art the answer is not simple. It can be an object such as a pet, a child, a sail boat?. But what about a painting containing none of these. Take abstract paintings. The artist uses contrasting colours, sharp edges and rhythms for example to make their point. What about abstract impression paintings showing large areas of solid colour? You decide.
There is no particular point of interest in my painting, Temple to the Winter Sun, (above). I suggest, however, the rhythms, play of light and a narrative combine to deliver a message that is strong and intriguing. That was my goal.
Points of interest are a fundamental part of a composition. They are not always positive. Several unintentional intersecting lines can distract the viewer and spoil a painting. Similarly, objects located in the exact centre of a canvas may mix the message. It takes time to develop a trained eye that recognizes problem areas as the painting progresses.
From my point of view, and from what I was taught, the solution is for artists to decide on a narrative and a composition, including a point of interest before paint is applied. I never start with a blank canvas and an open mind but I know some wonderful artists that would rather let their brush decide. It’s all ART in the making.
To artists, I wish you good painting. To those who enjoy seeing good art, I suggest spending a bit more time with each piece, attempting to go deeper, examining the artist’s narrative (story) and the beauty within.
The familiar fall smells of old leaves mingle with muted colours. Red maples, magnificent in full colour only short weeks ago, have dropped their brown leaves leaving bare limbs and branches. The nights are sharply colder accompanied by frost as nature prepares for another Canadian winter. We gaze up to the turbulent sky searching to predict the first snowfall in conversation with our neighbour. It’s a melancholy period for me, a time when I think of artist friends I haven't seen in years and painting trip adventures to locations, now out of reach. Thank goodness for family and friends and the Christmas season to carry us through.
And yet, as I survey the landscape, I feel the gift of a self-fulfilling promise: that after the blanket of snow has come and gone, spring will be in the air and a time of renewal. And so, bittersweet feelings find their way onto my canvas. My palette of colours doesn’t deviate. With time, I have learned to mix and layer the paint to bring out the soft undertones and muted colour that we find by examining the branches and undergrowth closely. That’s where I find a harbinger of things to come, all the while, raising my awareness that I too am part of this natural process.
I suppose the painting, Evidences of Life, 24x30, could have been entitled ‘Hopeful’. It took at least six trips back to the creek location to sketch and photograph the landscape, all the while waiting for the coming of snow and a winter sky, before I decided on a large (for me) canvas. Hope is not necessarily presumed, it effects me in the form of a sense of comfort with my time and place, grateful for the opportunity to enjoy our bountiful country in all seasons.
Is this painting successful? I think it is, and for me that is my first criteria.
Rideau Woodlands Ramble 10x12 acrylic was painted on a Manotick Art Association Plein Air outing in September.
It will be shown at the Amberwood Gallery Show.
Too many years ago, I became enchanted with Plein air painting – we called it painting outside – and my enthusiasm for the concept has never receded. It takes a lot of practice before satisfaction begins to set in, and years to perfect it.
Many artists paint from photographs for landscape inspiration. Just being outside with sketch book, easel and paints – any medium - has many advantages. A photograph gives us one perspective; when we are outside we stop and look all around. We examine elements from many directions, we observe the brightness of the sky, shifting shadows on the ground and colours that change as we look around, up and down. And, we form an impression.
Painting plein air challenges us to record what we perceive – everyone’s different of course - in a way that conveys some inner feeling. Our response depends on our level of knowledge and experience. When we have a concept worked out we begin to paint. The experience can mean dealing with frustration, and enlightenment at the same time and arriving at happy resignation in the case of poor result or incredible ecstasy when the painting is special. Later in studio the work can be refined to enhance the inspiration.
Living in Canada affords us four seasons, plenty of opportunity to get out and paint.
The first Day of Fall! You can see the leaves beginning to turn yellow and there is a fresh smell in the air. It’s a great time to be out and about, as they say, and a wonderful time to paint our Canadian landscape.
The Manotick Art Plein Air group have only a few trips left. This one, to Dickinson Square in the ‘Tick’, was particularly lovely because of the sunny weather and it was great just to see people out walking and enjoying the day, particularly after two years of Covid.
All plein air artists sense the coming of each season in personal ways. For myself, forty years of living with our growing family in Manotick have engendered many great memories: our family by the river, raking leaves, the children’s first day of school, and walking our dog(s) along back streets are all part of my fall kaleidoscope.
When our group came to paint and I walked around Dickinson Square and the Mill, I immediately identified with the tree lined streets and village homes and the strollers enjoying the early morning sunshine. I set up my easel on Mill Street by Dickinson House and my painting developed from there.
Early on, when I was busy absorbing everything I could from art books and instructors, I reached the conclusion that the business of painting had a lot to do with expressing one's thoughts about the things we see and experience - a narrative: a method that I preached at all the plein air workshops I taught.
But time has a way of morphing concepts. Serendipitous introductions to certain artists opened doors to fresh ideas. Pausing mesmerized, before an unforgettable abstract work, plied me with a huge respect for non-objectivity. Abandoning oils and solvents for watercolours and acrylics set me on new paths to expression. Watching my grandchildren paint red horses and blue elephants offered “What if?” possibilities. I gained appreciation for high realism, but unless I can discern some significance, other than workmanship, I have little interest in the genre. Instead, I turned to work that combined elements of abstraction and centres of interest. Today, I try to paint work that reflects how I feel about a subject in an intangible way so that my painting invites the viewer to join me, employing their own resources and interests.
The tendency for artists to repeat a theme can be compelling if they feel that repetition sells. Many artists, like myself, paint because we feel the need to paint, whatever holds our interest. When I accompany a dozen MAA Plein Air painters outside to paint the landscape, the result is 12 different looking paintings, each one displaying an individual, personal way of seeing nature. In time they will claim their own natural style. To create a sense of a narrative, will take inspiration and fore-thought.
Can't wait to start another one. I have a place in mind. . .
It's a rainy day at our cottage, two hours drive north-west of Gatineau. The grand kids are busy with crayons and papers flying everywhere. You can barely see across the still lake. The dog wants in. . . Again.
Why don't I just go out and paint something? I can see that the greens, upfront, are vibrant and intense, the hills beyond are blue, fading to grey sky. Still, it's hard to get excited I tell myself, resorting to familiar excuses: I'm getting old, done that before, more boring repetitions, who cares?
Wait a minute!. . . There's a break in the clouds - I can sniff a change in the air. Maybe, if I can find an 9x12 canvas? . . I knew some friends, my age, that gave up painting all-together. I couldn't do that. Much of my time is wrapped up in art-connected activities: outdoor painting, assisting artists, meeting clients at art shows, writing blogs like this one for my website and savoured quiet studio time – reworking old work or finishing new canvases while a jazz fm station grooves in the background.
Where does this enthusiasm come from? In 50 years of painting I've see a lot, from attending workshops and giving them myself, painting trips and gallery shows. I couldn't be criticized if I decided to retire at this age, right? The courage to paint comes from good health and a caring partner, for which I am grateful every day, and a fountain of wonderful memories. Memories of trips to places like Charlevoix, Gloucester, the Maritimes accompanied by exceptional artist who became life-long friends: Artists that supported my dreams with fresh ideas and mutual high praise, urging me - instilling me, with the drive to go on.
Many artists that approach me, these days, are looking for quick solutions to painting problems. I find that I have lost faith in the short answers that I could serve up years ago. Instead, I find words of praise and offer suggestions, offering ways to find courage, practice observation and paint regularly.
Reaching new plateaus in one's work comes slowly and in little steps that often go unnoticed until days or months later. I take great pleasure in trying to improve my own work, accepting both good and poor efforts as par for the course. And learning to recognize the difference! Occasionally, I am shown one of my paintings hanging ion someone's home. I am always struck by the professional look of painterly skill and presentation and I feel so glad that I have always sorted and sold only my best work. That moment is an award all by itself!
“Hey, the sun is breaking through dark clouds. Let's get out there and see if I can put a different spin on today's work. The roadside flowers are particularly beautiful this summer, I've noticed.”
Setting aside the joys of just being outside experiencing our magnificent countryside in all seasons and sharing the occasional good times with artistic friends, what is it that drives artists like myself to paint outdoors?
When you think about it, there are plenty of obstacles to venturing out. Changing weather and freezing temperatures don't make it easy, neither do mosquitoes, black flies, ticks and poison ivy. Makes one wonder - where is the reward?
When I set out, loaded with painting gear, I keep an open mind as to a subject for the day, unless I am giving a demonstration for example. When I find a motif that interests me, I like to be free of outside influences so that when I settle in to paint, the time of day, weather and light conditions – all the ambiences - will be at play. That's my mission. Sometimes the process comes easily leading to a quick start. At other times it is evasive – time to move on.
This chance process leads to the occasional poor effort. They get discarded. When my instincts all come together, and I record what excites me, I can produce a painting that far exceeds my expectations; the years of painting experience provide me with the means to go beyond detail, to listen to my inner voices and to allow the painting to sail on without conscious effort. And when at last, I put down my brushes, I feel exhausted, drained. I pack up my paints with a big smile and a warm feeling of deep satisfaction.
The painting, The Back Gate, (above) is a case in point. On a sunny day in June, I came cross an unusual gate in the forest. A brilliant sun was lighting up the background and garden grounds beyond. I was mesmerized by the effect. Who would use the gate? Why did someone go to the trouble to carefully make it and install it into the the old log fence? In short time I had an idea for a painting. I had enough to make my own story.
And no, I don't just like plein air painting – I love it! I hope that my paintings show it.
#219922 Summer Morning Along Poole Creek 30x36, repainted.
Back in the summer of 2019, before COVID 19, I painted Summer Morning Along Poole Creek from a 11x14 plein-air sketch. The painting captured the day very well, in my assessment, but I always felt that it was dark: faithfully recording the silhouetted trees and shadows and the closed in feeling of the stream and surroundings.
This spring we were blessed with a surprisingly quick recovery from the cold dark days of winter as the snow disappeared and green buds arrived practically over night. I walked the trail daily, revelling in warm weather, watching as the trees and undergrowth changed and the creek receded. I took photographs and made sketches to record the welcome transformations.
When I had the time, following the successful 10-Collective art show at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte, I took out Summer Morning Along Poole Creek, removed the 30x36 canvas from its picture frame and set it up on my easel.
I studied it with fresh eyes. I asked myself, “could I repaint it using the pent up synergy of this spring?” The risk: that there's no going back.
At first I started in tentatively, trying small strokes of green in varying shades of higher values. Then left it on the studio easel for a week or so. Finally, when I felt the excitement of anticipation building, I squeezed out a full palette of Golden acrylic colours. Using Golden Glazing medium and large brushes, I began work in earnest until the canvas was transformed, all the while constantly walking back and forth from my easel to assess the overall effect.
Adjustments followed with several trips to Poole Creek at different times in the day to observe shadows, reflections and new greens. When I put down by brushes a further two weeks later, I felt satisfied that I had lifted the painting to a new high. You see, as I often explain to others, I believe that painting is about technique – for sure, but it is also about listening to yourself and expressing those thoughts in an artistic, meaningful way.
And never stop trying to do better. . . .
The Mississippi River passes through the town of Almonte, winding it's way northwest to the Village of Blakeney, where it transforms into fast-flowing rapids. Standing near the bridge overlooking the rapids, I sense the immense power in the turbulent water at my feet, before it disappears, plunging down in wild waterfalls: the sounds roaring in my ears, creating a sensation of time in suspended animation. My imagination drifts back to earlier times in history when Blakeney was a lively thriving centre with water turbines, mills, stores, shops and homes located close by. Now, a few rusted parts at the entrance to the path going down to the waterfalls are visible. Yet, the river continues it's journey as if time itself was inconsequential.
Plein air painting locations often have a special effect on me: a feeling that despite all my worldly cares and efforts at keeping busy, my life is just one insignificant part of this incredible, natural world and then I take comfort in the thought that I am so lucky to be out here, grasping at the enormity and beauty of it all. And feeling so very THANKFUL.
#2221016 Suspended 20x24 was created in my studio in early March this year, between multiple trips back and forth to Blakeney for photography and sketching reference material, on late afternoons when the low winter sun's rays warm cold skies.
This painting and others will be featured at my booth at the Ten Ten Collective Art Exhibition at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte, Saturday, April 23 and Sunday April 24, 2022. All are welcome. Covid restrictions will apply.
The Art of Charles Spratt