By Sue Ginter
On January 4, 2017, I arrived at my very first painting class. I had been exposed to art in elementary and middle school and loved to sketch faces, but never had the chance to paint with anything beyond a child’s set of Prang watercolors. Because of that, oil paint had always seemed mysteriously grown-up and sophisticated — even intimidating!
I had received the gift of art lessons for Christmas, and one of the few painting classes that wasn’t already full was a plein air class (which I vaguely understood meant painting outdoors). The instructor, award-winning artist Ted Matz, indicated that any medium would be acceptable. Hoping to simplify the transition to painting, and still somewhat overwhelmed by all the solvents and mediums, I settled on a set of acrylics.
It’s hard to describe the discomfort and intimidation I felt walking into that first painting class. I got lost finding the kayak launch on Singer Island and arrived 15 minutes late. Everyone was already at their easel applying paint. It took me 15 more minutes to figure out how to set up my new easel, after which I fumbled through my backpack, pulling out paint and squeezing it onto this thing called a palette. I remember dutifully using graphite to sketch innumerable tree branches and roots in minute detail before even attempting to apply any paint.
Ted eased my discomfort by showing me how to start with a mid-value underpainting, work from dark to light, and commented positively on my composition. All in all, it was an inauspicious beginning to a painting life.
Fast forward one year to January 2018. I made a decision to enter something called the Delray Beach Plein Air Fun Fest in Florida, hosted by Plein Air Palm Beach, which is a talented and welcoming group of artists with whom I had begun painting a few months prior. By now I had switched to oil paints.
This particular paint-out offered a morning of plein air followed by a critique session. Non-juried artists were even allowed to sell their paintings in a silent auction.
I am a big believer in participating – leaning in – even when you feel uncomfortable … especially when you feel uncomfortable.
So on the eve of the paint out, I prepped two canvases, one with a cool violet under-painting, and the other with warm burnt sienna. My goal was to be prepared for whatever subject matter I might encounter. I spent a few moments browsing photos of downtown Delray Beach, trying to get a feel for the area. The venue was an hour from my home and I wanted to get there a little early to register and explore the area.
In the morning I packed all my gear, including a few wooden frames for the auction. With a large glass of fresh-brewed iced tea in my cup holder, I embarked on the drive to Delray Beach. So far, everything was moving along according to plan.
Except that upon arrival in Delray, it soon became apparent that my warm and cool panels were nowhere to be found. Panic flooded over me as I headed to registration. What to do? Maybe someone would have an extra panel? Perhaps the art school sold supplies?
Fortunately, I was informed that I could find panels at a small office and art supply store in downtown Delray. So I walked/jogged three blocks to the store and bought a few canvases. The store was sold out of 9 X 12 panels, which was the only size frame I had brought with me. I purchased a few 8 X 10 panels and, feeling completely discombobulated, headed off in search of an inspiring scene.
I lugged my gear down a street lined with eclectic Florida cottages, mentally testing out compositions that my skill level would allow me to successfully complete in what was now a compressed time frame, thanks to the impromptu purchase of painting supplies. Soon I spotted a pale blue Key West cottage, framed by a white picket fence and lush tropical vegetation. A friendly and accomplished artist whom I had met earlier in the year, Patricia McGuire, was already painting across the street. She had a funky Pandora mix of tunes playing in the background. The combination of music, a friendly face, and the charming old Florida scene led me to stop and set up my pochade box.
After about 90 minutes, when my painting was still in the “I really hate it so I must be making progress” stage, Patricia shouted hello from across the street. “That’s my studio over there. Would you like to come over and have something to drink?”
“Oh thank you,” I replied. “But I have some work left to do over here. I’d better keep painting.”
“Did you bite off more than you can chew?” she asked sweetly.
“It looks that way,” I sighed, returning to my labors.
After another 45 minutes, it was time to return to the art school for critiques, which I felt that I sorely needed. Patricia and I walked over together and she seemed honestly complimentary of my painting, which encouraged me.
After lunch, we broke into small groups for critiques. I was fortunate to have several talented artists in my critique group, which was led by rising plein air painter Shawn Escott. The positive comments regarding my painting surprised me. One of the professional artists in our group recommended adding a few sparkles of lights and defining the darks, which made perfect sense. It is so helpful to have another painter’s eyes on our work.
By now, I felt confident enough that with a few tweaks I could enter the silent auction. But my frames were the wrong size, so either I would have to make a second art supply run or admit defeat and bring my painting home with me.
One of the locals gave me directions to a nearby Michael’s store, so I made a frenzied trip in that direction to purchase an 8 X 10 frame. After that, I rushed back to my Key West cottage, plopped down on the curb, propped my pochade box on my lap, and endeavored to finish my little 8 X 10 masterpiece.
By the 3 p.m. deadline, my oil painting was framed and entered in the silent auction, which would be held alongside the juried competition the following day.
The next night, I dragged my family back down to Delray for the silent auction and awards. We arrived at the venue and walked along admiring all the wet paintings. I kept looking for my painting to show off to my family, but we could not find it. I became embarrassed; maybe they removed some of the works that did not meet minimum quality standards. Was that possible? I asked one of the organizers what had happened.
“Oh, your painting is not hanging out there? That means it has been sold.”
Sold? Did I hear her correctly? Sold? Someone paid for my painting?
She led me to a back room where the sold paintings were now stored. There it stood, my painting with a SOLD tag. It had even received multiple bids. I was stunned and speechless.
For a beginning artist, selling a painting provides much-needed validation. My dreams of becoming a better painter, a real painter, a bonafide artist suddenly seemed less foolish.
Later I reflected on what went into selling my first painting, which had in fact been one of my written goals for the year. Initially, I had not been able to imagine how such an event might take place.
I realized the goal was achieved because of persistence in the face of several obstacles.
First, I had to push out of my comfort zone and enter the Plein Air Fun Fest. Second, I found a way to get my hands on a canvas panel at the last minute. Third, I was open to constructive criticism from more experienced painters during the critique session. And finally, I made an inconvenient trip to the frame store so that my work could be entered into the auction.
So what did I learn?
For starters, it is vitally important to persevere. Even when events seem stacked against you, believe in yourself and your mission. Obstacles can be maneuvered past with a little creative thinking. Sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to put yourself in a position to achieve your goals. Your determination will be rewarded in the most surprising ways.
Good people like Ted, Shawn, and Patricia will appear to help guide you. Take steps forward, even if you don’t feel particularly confident. When you are scared and wondering if you will fit in, show up anyway! And as we have all heard before, never ever, ever, ever give up.
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