I spent a few days last week planning a new painting so that on Monday I could start using paint. I had it all worked out for a 24-inch-square canvas. On Monday morning, I was excited to get into the studio after running school carpool. I reviewed my sketches, stared at everything one more time, aaaaand decided the canvas size was wrong for the composition. It was important for me to start painting early in the week because spouse was soon going to leave for five days and then I’d be on 100% mothering duty. I called an audible and started looking for a new scene for my primed canvas.
Last month I spent a full week organizing all the documents and photographs on my laptop. The goal was to edit and organize all the art reference photos I’ve taken over many years. Did it. That may be the first time I’ve started and completed a task before I needed to do it. I found a new reference photo quickly. This explains how surprised and happy I was to go through my new, very granular, filing system.
Bright New Day
I usually paint with the same two or three brushes, all of them filbert shaped in different small-medium sizes. Filbert is kind of a combination of flat and round brushes. I had recently organized my brushes, too, and I decided to bring in some other teammates for my audible play. With big areas of sky and sand to paint, I used a couple of large brights. These brushes are flat in shape but with shorter, stiffer bristles than a regular flat brush. They were great for creating the chiseled volume of the clouds, and their size allowed me to cover canvas quickly.
I liked painting this so much that I really had to tell myself to put down the brush and walk away. While I am at a good stopping point for the days ahead in job shift, it’s tough to hit the brakes when you’re gassed up and ready to go.
One of the happy consequences of my artwork from the 30 Paintings in 30 Days challenge is 30 small pictures to consider as studies for larger work. I like to start with the worst ones.
There was obviously something about the subject that inspired me, and while I didn’t nail it the first time, I want to keep trying until I get it right or until it’s not inspiring anymore. Last weekend I gave myself a challenge: To repaint the least popular (per Instagram likes) painting from the bunch of 30—No. 3. It started as a snapshot taken by my mom. The photo is great on its own—which normally I’d steer clear of—but mom was like, “Paint it!”
It’s one of those images that looks a bit abstract because of its simplicity: few lines, few colors. But just like the most difficult time to drive is at dusk, the difficult time of day to paint is also dusk because it flattens everything. There’s little contrast between light and dark; everything is soaked in a mono-tonal blue-gray light. For drivers, this means you can't see very well. For painters, this means you can't get interest and depth from easy sources of light and shadow. A strong light source is a lay-up for painters. Without it, you've got to really know how to play ball.
I like the first painting, a watercolor. It has the simplicity of design I was aiming for, but maybe I could give it a little more character. Here’s what I did (pictured below).
A common question from an art viewer is “How long did it take you to paint that?” The answer can be hard to calculate. I think house painters say their job is 90% preparation and 10% execution. I tried to get up that ratio with my newest painting because it was a new direction and I wanted to give myself every advantage to get it right and enjoy doing it. Here is a breakdown of the hours to make this picture:
For some things, countable minutes are minimal yet need to happen over an extended period. As my friend fellow artist Anne Perkins Wert said to me once, “the looking is the doing, too.” I looked and thought a lot, especially on the background color. I did a lot of planning for this painting so that I could avoid freezing in front of the canvas mid-process when faced with indecision or error. It worked well. I painted quickly and happily. What? Planning helped? No kidding, Amanda.
Artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865–1929) proposed that the best kind of art school would be one at which the subject is in one room, and the students paint in another. Students would take as much time as they wanted looking at the subject, then they’d have to use their memory of it to paint. After studying the subject from many angles, into the painting room students would go “carrying only what they know.” He went on to say that painting by memory “will make it possible to make your statement of something when it was the most beautiful to you.”
I have never painted by memory. I’m a photo-reference gal. I print out a couple photos of a subject, I draw on them making grids and notes, and I look at them constantly while I’m painting. I don’t paint everything I see, but I look very hard at the photo to decide how I want to edit it for my painting. I listen to loud music or podcasts, and I have a good time.
During the 30/30 challenge, I painted my first picture from memory. And it was out of necessity (mmm, laziness). I work up one morning during sunrise and went out to the pergola in front of our beach house in my jammies to drink my coffee. It was a cloudy morning so the sun wasn’t screaming at my eyes, and there was a swarm of little birds hovering and diving over the ocean. I wanted to take a picture for a painting later, but I had left my phone in my bedroom, and I didn’t want to go get it. And there was no one to holler at to get it for me. I decided to try Henri’s practice. “Ok, Amanda, take it aaalllll in.” Those birds stayed. I stared. I ran out of coffee. I made mental notes about what I thought was important about the scene and ignored the rest. When I painted it a few hours later, it turned out exactly as I had wanted to remember the scene. AND painting was easier and faster in this method. AND this painting was the most popular (per Instagram likes) one of the 30. Now in full honesty, I wanted a decent shot at success, so I limited the size of the painting to 3.5 x 3 inches.
The next day I painted a companion piece of sunset in the same size. This one was done from a photo. Looking time + painting time together, I spent about the same amount of time on this one as the sunrise, but there was a clear difference in mood and affect when I spent more time looking than painting. Those personal qualities that appear beyond technique. Just like Henri said.
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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