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Monday, June 24, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: taking risks


Painting is inherently exploratory, so there’s no sense revisiting what you already know.

Parrsboro basin, by Carol L. Douglas. This was my two-hour quick-draw.
I just came back from Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival, where I painted with my pal Poppy Balser. Several times, we discussed the question of whether one should take risks in a competitive event, or save those paintings for times when one is under no pressure.

Risk-taking falls into three categories:
  1. Changing materials and tools;
  2. Compositional or technical changes;
  3. New subject matter.

Painting with Poppy at Parrsboro. Say that ten times fast. (Photo courtesy of Anne Wedler.)
The latter is the easiest to address. I heard several people say, “I’m not a boat painter” right before they attempted the devilishly-difficult fleet standing against the seawall at Advocate Harbor. I am a boat painter and the boats of Nova Scotia have defeated me many times. These are the highest tides in the world, and they move with heady speed. As they drop, they leave the short, squat trawlers standing upright on the shingle.

That doesn’t mean I don’t try; I am not in Nova Scotia fishing waters often enough to let the opportunity slide by. My error was in dragging a 16X20 canvas down onto the wet sand and trying to finish it before the tide and weather moved in. Devoting a day to painting something I didn’t know was no mistake.
Peek-a-Boo Island, by Carol L. Douglas
Changing up your method is a different question. There really is only one sure-fire way of applying oil paints in the field, but within that, there are many variations. Equally true, watercolor is almost universally applied light-to-dark, but there are variations within that, too. By the time an artist has gotten accepted into a major show, the process is usually solidly established. However, things happen to upset that. At Rye’s Painters on Location a few years ago, I lost my painting medium. Tarryl Gabel kindly shared some gel medium. It softened everything up, and I found myself painting in far greater detail than is my wont.

This time I used a new titanium white which was much oilier than my usual paint. And I painted on a new substrate, a clear birch board. The board was a fabulous success; the former not so much.

Poppy Balser with her two competition paintings. The one at left won Best in Show.
Poppy took more compositional risks than did I. Her two paintings entered for the competition were of the weir in dim light and another looking straight up a cliffside of sedimentary rock. In the weir painting, the subject is strongly foreshortened and dark on one side. In the hands of a less-adroit painter, it could have resulted in a balance issue, but it was far more interesting than the usual composition. Her risk-taking paid off handsomely. She won Best in Show.

However, behind that painting was three years of painting the weir from every angle and in every different lighting condition. The herring weir is Poppy’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. I’ve personally seen her do at least fifteen paintings of it. That deep familiarity means she can take risks with the shape and composition. She’s stared at it for so many hours that it’s become intimately familiar to her.

In the end, all our solemn pondering of risk-taking was so much hot air. Eventually, the risks always won out. Painting is inherently exploratory. There’s no sense revisiting what you already know; that always leads to boredom.

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