Paintings on the wall, Lessons from Nature and 8 ‘En plein air’ tips.

Painting outside sounds so ‘In the moment’ doesn’t it! So idyllic, so tranquil. No distractions, communing with Nature, letting it flow direct to the canvas. Well, it can be, occasionally, in between the wind, rain and flies getting stuck in your paint and being chased by cows! I was once painting outside on the coast and it had started to rain, when a passer-by said “ Oh your brave”. “Well” I said, “If you don’t paint outside in the rain round here, you don’t do a lot of painting outside!” I’ve been regularly painting outside ever since we opened “Oriel Fach”, Welsh for “Little Gallery,” just over seven years ago.

Oriel Fach has a tiny studio at the back and it was always the plan for me to be painting in the studio and running the gallery on a day to day basis, meeting and chatting to people about my work, trying to break down some of the barriers associated with walking into a Gallery, which, If you’re anything like me, you find it quite intimidating sometimes. It’s not like walking into a shop is it, even though it is a shop! A shop Selling Art. And there it is, I said it…‘ART’. And in particular ‘Visual Art’.

Selling Art is Selling Ideas, Experiences, Personal interpretations, Stories of the world around us. I suppose book shops are similar in this respect though book shops tend to be cosy places where you can lose yourself for hours, Music shops too, (remember them!) Boutique Fashion shops to a degree. All selling forms of artistic expression. I think the difference with a Gallery though is 2 fold.

  1. All this ‘Visual subjectivity’ is on display. Paintings on the walls. It takes time to read a book, it takes time to listen to a piece of music. Time is invested by the author or musician to write the piece and then time has to be taken to listen to or read it, sometimes a piece of music even has chance to slowly ‘grow on you’! A book can unfold and draw you in. This is usually done at your own leisure, and usually in private, in your own home, maybe sometimes at a concert. But you get my drift, you get to react to it at your own pace. Equally, an Artist invests time, in my case, Painting. But the difference here is vital, the painting is put up on a Gallery wall and literally in the blink of an eye, the whole thing, all the time, the effort, the idea is taken in. Its visual impact is immediate. Even if the message is not. A number of surveys have been done on the time it takes for visitors in museums to look at a painting, and the average time it takes is 2 seconds, another 10 seconds to read any text on the wall, another look to verify anything in the text and the visitor moves on. My point is, it takes seconds, and in those seconds the viewer has made up their mind, and drawn their swift conclusions about a piece. When I watch a comedian live I want to find him funny not just because I want to laugh and be entertained but because I find it excruciating when they’re not. There is a pressure to find him funny and for him to be funny. When that’s not met, I want to get out of there! It’s a personal thing. It’s the same in a Gallery, especially a private commercial gallery. You walk in and are confronted with all this stuff that you are being asked to consider. There’s usually a Gallery assistant hovering about, they’ll ask you if you require any help, you’ll say “No thanks, I’m just looking” But there’s the rub, you  probably already have and if you have already decided and if you don’t like it, the rest of your visit is made up of you thinking “What is the polite amount of time I can get away with being IN here before I can get OUT of here!” And that leads me onto…
  2. You feel you are also on show! Depending on the size of the Gallery, You are in a square space with, no shop furniture, just floor and walls, most private commercial galleries you find yourself in will be fairly modest sizes. Maybe there’s music maybe there’s silence! There is nowhere to hide! You want to go unnoticed so you can have a look and let your guard down to enjoy looking and allowing yourself time to draw your own conclusions about the art on display! You feel the assistant is weighing you up for a sale! Other visitors maybe in the gallery too, you maybe do the ‘when can I leave calculation’ in your head or are thinking do I stand back to look at the same painting as that other person is or do I move on and come back to it? I wish they would hurry up! Are they going left to right? ( Incidentally there is such a thing as ‘invariant right’, the majority of people when they walk into a store turn to their right) Should I go the opposite way? How much is that painting? Oh f**k this get me outta here! It’s the reason Galleries have Open evenings with FREE WINE! Invite a crowd together, fill that empty space with people, so they can become anonymous, Create an informal atmosphere and get them a bit tipsy so hopefully they spend some money! What other High street industry has to go to these lengths, in order to sell its products?

So at Oriel Fach we wanted to create a space where it was more informal, where you could feel more relaxed and chat to the Artist rather than a haughty gallery assistant in a black polo neck pushing for a sale. Or not chat, if visitors preferred, and I always keep the door open for those quick getaways! And I don’t take it personally!…Anymore!

The Oriel Fach studio is very small though. Which leads me to the second part of this meander, which is “En plien air” in French or “Plain ol’ painting outdoors” in English! It became a necessity more than anything else, just because there wasn’t much room in the studio with all the other stuff associated with the gallery. You can’t swing a number 7 Filbert brush in there never mind a cat! So out I went. I’d painted occasionally outside before, you know, when the weather was nice and so forth. But this was different, this was to become a major part of my process, it was a way I could produce work, both in scale and productivity that would support me and the gallery. The very nature of painting outside is to complete a canvas or at least cover a canvas in as quick and economical time as would allow. People say that you capture the moment when  painting outside. That’s not true. It’s not a photograph, it takes more than a moment to capture a moment on canvas. It’s more like condensing a moment, or even better, capturing lots of moments and putting them all together to present the illusion of a moment. And this leads into my first tip on painting outdoors.

  1.    Painting skies or clouds in particular. These are ephemeral things that are in constant flux. No sooner have you started to paint a cloud, it has gone or changed shape and floated away. There is just no way to paint one the same way you paint a portrait, or still life. What you have to do is watch them, observe how they move look at how they affect the light on the landscape and how they add to the scene pictorially and then once you understand them you can paint your own version of them, making sure that they appear as ephemeral and natural looking as you can, with all their apparent randomness. I say apparent because when you watch them closely there’s little random about them. They have strict formations and patterns closely associated with wind direction, weather, humidity, location, precipitation, etc. They do breathe life into a landscape though. All the great English Landscape painters knew this, Constable especially knew this, as did Turner and Gainsborough. Constable spent a considerable amount of time in the pursuit and study of clouds. Meteorologists today can look at some of Constables paintings and predict the weather in the forthcoming 24 hours, his clouds were so accurate. Landscape painting is a fusion of art and science, Constable himself said , “Painting is a scientific enquiry into the laws of nature”. Once you begin to understand these laws, even on a superficial level, you can observe them and paint them. It’s exactly the same when you come to paint the sea and waves. Once you understand the patterns and the types of waves and colours of the sea certain conditions produce you will be able to paint them at first hand. You will be able to rely on your own observed understanding of nature.
  2.   Capture everything at the same time. That is to say paint all over your canvas, don’t start in one region and finish there and move on to the next. Keep moving from one area to another, never keep still. Keep your brushes dancing. That way you are more likely to come away with an overall effect of what is around you. And it is this overall effect that we are trying to capture. I use five or six brushes, interchanging them instead of cleaning them. Keep your brushstrokes loose and varied, big, bold and instinctive to start, more thoughtful towards the end. Imagine you bounce a ball on the ground. Its initial bounces will be big, high bounces, becoming smaller as the ball settles on the ground. So, with your brush strokes. Big, bouncing, broad strokes becoming smaller and more refined as you come to the finishing touches. And don’t fiddle, it is what it is. Over thinking it will kill it!
  3.   Peg your canvas and easel to the ground in the wind, with tent pegs and lines. Assume it’s going to rain and you won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t. I always bring two canvases tied up facing each other with a wooden separator. And I bring a bin bag in case I need to put them in to keep dry. I carry citronella too for horse flies. While we’re on the subject of flies; In the Summer and other times of year to a degree, but mainly warm summer days, you’ll sometimes find clouds of gnats, midges or other small flying insects finding their way into your paint. If on your palette you can scrape them out. If they’re in your painting, unless they are big enough to flick off with a pen knife, I leave them till the painting is dry and brush them off. Same goes for grass seed, sand and any other foreign body that finds its way into your paint. Having bits of flora and fauna fossilised in your painting surely makes it more authentic! And obviously makes it easier to carbon date in a thousand years time!
  4.   Limiting your palette makes life lighter and easier. I carry 5 colours; Including white, they are the 3 primaries (Magenta, primary Yellow, and Cyan) and Viridian. I wrap my brushes in a piece of old canvas and carry plenty of rags. Always set out your palette in the same order keeping the paint blobs to the edge. I keep to Viridian, Cyan, Magenta , Yellow in that order at the top of the palette with a line of titanium white along the bottom. This way I know instinctively where they are. Always wipe your palette clean when you’re done or when it gets too full. Obviously don’t leave anything behind when you leave your painting site.
  5.   I try to be polite to people who come over to me and want to know how long my painting took. I find if I stop what I’m doing and clean a few brushes while giving nice neat polite answers are enough but don’t encourage conversation or you’ll never get anything done!
  6.   Don’t run from cows. They WILL chase you.
  7.   Double check your kit before leaving the studio. I once trekked for an hour and a half along the Pembrokeshire coast and when I unpacked, found I had forgotten my brushes! I ended up using a rag!! I’ve forgotten white paint in the past too, most frustrating. So check your kit, check the tides, check the forecast, though some of my most memorable and successful paintings have been born from the most demanding weather, so don’t worry too much about getting a perfect day, there’s no such thing. As long as you’re not setting out in a force 11 to the cliffs! If you’re out and your painting, that’s as perfect as it gets. I’ve learned to leave my artistic ego at home and learn from whatever Nature throws my way. And check what time the nearest pub shuts.
  8.   Lastly, I don’t look at what I’ve painted for a few days at least. These paintings are still raw, give them time to bed in and cook a bit and become separated from the days experience. That way you won’t judge them too harshly. Like I said before don’t fiddle, they are what they are. Be Kind to them. What they are not, is a still life. They are the very antithesis of STILL. Painting outdoors is a state of being and the paintings that have been painted outdoors are feral wild things, they were not born to the confines of the studio and shouldn’t pretend to be.
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