About me: I paint in the controlled comfort of my studio, and I take my time.
About painting outdoors: It is the opposite of that.
And so, I was nearly trembling with nervousness when I set up my outdoor easel for the FIRST TIME on the painter’s paradise that is Monhegan Island (12 miles off the coast of Maine) for a week-long plein-air painting workshop. (I intended to use it beforehand to get a feel for it, but I, uh, didn’t.) I chose a shady spot with no one around. Then my instructor set up next to me. His wife set up on my other side. I was already discombobulated, now I was anxious. My hands didn’t know where my tools were. Did I bring the right brushes? I’m hungry. After two hours, I could tell that first painting was awful, and I didn’t even try to finish it.
But then! I ate something, threw away the bad painting—literally and mentally—and went out to a different location. By the second time, I was already more confident. Each day we went to a new spot, which meant each day had an element of uncertainty, but any anxiety from that fact turned to excitement. By mid-week I looked and felt (maybe even smelled) like a seasoned outdoor painter, and my friends and I still made “studio time” in our apartment to finish up our outdoor work at the end of each day. We combined both worlds into a happy balance.
You probably think I scoff at the mass-produced printed copies of paintings for sale at the likes of HomeGoods and Target. Surprise—I’m going to start by acknowledging that that stuff has a purpose and a place.
I don’t think I need to make a pitch for why you would want original art over what I’m going to democratically call wall décor, but I will make the pitch that original art is easier to buy than you think. I’ll try to get you over a few common hang-ups I hear from people.
“I’m not an art person.” Yes, you are. I am confident that everyone has seen at least one work of art that has stopped them in their tracks. There has been at least one painting or sculpture that you paused in front of while cruising through a museum. AND: Just because you can’t talk about that painting the way a curator would doesn’t mean you didn’t have some response—and that is what is special about art.
And that response doesn’t have to be existential. It can be happy, calm, silly. Much of the time, those simple feelings are what the artist was trying to capture, too. When someone recently bought a floral still-life of mine, I asked him, “Why did you choose this picture?” His answer: “Um, I like the colors.” Guess what? Me, too! That’s why I painted it.
“Galleries are intimidating.” That’s probably because you think you can’t talk about art. You don’t have to talk about it. That’s the gallery’s job. You just have to like something and point to it. I promise the gallery assistant is happy to have you stop in. Have you ever seen a crowded gallery on a regular day? No. They’re jonesing for visitors. Afraid to ask about the price? First, prices should be clearly visible. If not, ask—you could be pleasantly surprised. Or it’ll be so outrageous you’ll giggle. I’ve done that.
“I don’t have that kind of money.” It’s easier than ever to find something you can afford, because there are so many more options than there used to be (see below). And just like any other purchase that you know could run high, consider your budget, your needs (yes, you need art—are you going to have bare walls?), and your wants.
“I don’t know where to shop.” It’s all around you: art fairs, eBay, Salvation Army, my Web site, my studio, other people’s Web sites, Etsy, garage sales, Instagram, Pinterest, interior designers, cafes, local art centers and schools. And because many of these options allow you to have direct access to the artist, 1) you may pay less and 2) when you talk to the artist you have a better connection to the artwork. Isn’t it fun to have a good story about a purchase?
“I don’t know what to buy.” Buy what you like, and you’ll never go wrong. This art going to be in your house, so you’re the one who is going to look at it every day. You don’t have to “get” it—the artist’s intention, inspiration, or message. If you have a response to something, that’s the piece for you.
Okay, I can’t help it. Here’s my small pitch for original art from someone who likes to buy it, not just make it. What I admire most in original art is being able to see “the artist’s hand”—the texture of the brushstrokes in a painting. Next is the luminosity of paint. When light hits a pigment (the color in the medium), you can see its richness, depth, nuance. A printed copy flattens everything and drains its energy (not in a mystical sense, just in a lively sense). Last, it feels good to support a real person who made something with their hands, heart, and mind.
Last month was my third time doing a daily-painting challenge, and by now I’ve learned a few things. I’ve always had a theme and materials at the ready so that I wasn’t spending time thinking of what and how to paint each day. This time I took that preparation further to have a more cohesive group of work at the end.
I did this by choosing not only a theme (blue) and tools (palette knife), but also a mood. I started with snow scenes, and as I got into them I found that even when painting activity—sledding, skating—a quietness prevailed. Snow does that to the outdoors—even a city—and we like that about it. So, I went with it. When I didn’t paint snow I kept that feeling of quiet and calm in my still lifes. Using blue helps a lot. Besides thick swaths of many blues, I also used a neutral blue-gray to tint each panel. It made for a good start toward unity.
I always had a panel on deck ready for the next day. I made two a day when I could to take some pressure off of my and my husband’s (yes, both!) birthday weekend. The flu knocked me off my game even more, and since this is now the second February in a row that I’ve been afflicted by this angry virus, I may choose a different month to do this challenge next year.
Last lesson: I should not “hide” a box of Valentine chocolates in a drawer in my studio. They turned into second breakfast too many times.
I was cleaning up my studio in December, and my sister told me that in Japan there’s a word for this year-end tradition called o-soji, "the great clean." We usualy call this a purge, but now that there’s a freaky horror movie with that name, I prefer o-soji. My soji coincided with a studio visit by a new client, and I decided to take it to the next level.
I love throwing things away, it’s practically a hobby, so this was a real treat. I opened every drawer, door, and boxes in drawers to assess and reorganize. I found so much space! I found a box of price tags, a folding stool, and two tubes of paint! The "client" part of this exercise was to pretty up for a visitor. I hung more artwork on my walls, cleared more floor space, bought a plant, and brought in seating for relaxed viewing and chatting. The soji extended through my house because I was going to have to walk Client from my front door through the living room, kitchen, downstairs through the hall, then into the studio. The entire household benefited.
The visit went very well (I’m hired!), and the lasting effect is an even more pleasant space to go to work. Since the visit, I have also added a candy dish, which I highly recommend for a little treat while you're thinking hard on something.
My friend Amy knows that commissions are a little difficult for me because I don’t like someone telling me what to do. (Only a little difficult, Amanda?) So when she asked for one and told me to “surprise” her, I was ever so grateful for her submission to my artistic ego. Was she just indecisive? Or did she trust me? I didn’t care. She gave me a handful of photographs of a landscape special to her family, and I sat down to think about how to knock her socks off.
I started with mood. The landscape is hunting acreage, and I honed in on a photo showing the place in winter—tall skinny bare trees, open grassy field, a small fire pit. It felt quiet, even a little reverential, which I know reflects the relationship between the adult and the children in the image when they share this place. A second photo was full of details that I knew would personalize the piece, including the figures that I wanted to be recognizable. I can get very detailed when working with pens and watercolor, and if I went with this medium, I’d stay small to deliver a sense of intimacy. I drew it in pencil first, then added ink to the foreground. I painted the background and was even happier I’d chosen winter woods because the earthy colors make the bright bits of color in the foreground pop. Those red heads are really working!
I was so confident Amy would like her painting that I captured her reaction on video. She squealed a little. It was great. The painting will be a Christmas gift for her husband, and I asked if she thought he would cry when he opened it. Maybe, she said. I will reveal his reaction in the January newsletter. Fingers crossed! Because when someone cries, you’ve won gift giving.
Later is what?
After settling into various desk jobs, I always said I'd get back to painting later in life, and later is now. Again means that I tried once before. I decided to write about my painting endeavor, too, as a learning tool, an accountability tool, and to stay sharp in case I have to go back to a desk job. Again.
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