Being able to paint faster in the field is a worthy goal, right? Kim Carlton set out on a “Year of Painting Fast” to gain this skill, but halfway through, she had second thoughts. When she wrote a blog post addressing this issue, the response was surprising.
Lead Image: “I-45 South Feeder Road Flowers,” by Kim Carlton, 2015, oil, 9 x 12 in.
“I was completely taken aback by the response to this article,” says Carlton. “I woke up on the morning of publication to a dozen e-mails from total strangers, and then the Facebook response knocked me out. There were private messages, dozens of ‘shares,’ and lively conversation threads springing forth. I’m thankful that people have forums like those to discuss things that affect all of us. I love the events that have grown up around plein air painting, and I hope they continue to grow and thrive. I do wish there were more events like the Plein Air Convention & Expo and Publisher’s Invitational paint-outs, where people come and just learn and share and paint together. I always wished I’d been in Paris in the 1890s, where painters and writers just lived and worked together all year long, making great leaps in thought because of the sharing. We’re in the middle of a similar thing, I think; the Internet and the jumbo jet help us have fellowship with each other. The trick will be to allow it to grow us together and not pit us against each other or cause us to feel inferior and give up. It’s art.”
Carlton signed up for two workshops this year with the express purpose of learning how to paint quicker en plein air — one with Jill Carver and another with Ray Roberts. In both cases, she heard something different from what she expected. “Here’s what we all did learn: Sometimes what you think you need to learn is different from what you actually need to learn,” she writes in a blog post on the Oil Painters of America website. Both instructors said, and showed, that speed is not the key. Roberts focused on deliberate color mixes and small studies that captured the essential elements of the scene, which he later combined in a studio piece. Carver focused on values, and on internalizing a scene to the extent that it could be by painted by her with her back turned to it. “I’ll tell you how this affected me: I felt liberated,” writes Carlton. “Liberated from my own expectations and free to be myself out there.”
The Texas artist says she decided that “the point is the product, not the pace.” Evidently, many other artists were traveling along the same path as Carlton. “Lo and behold, I found that almost every single person in both workshops had signed up for the same reason, showing me I was not alone. It occurred to me during Ray Roberts’ workshop that plein air painting might be like running: you’re either a sprinter or a marathoner, and training only strengthens your natural gifts. I felt even more sure about that during Jill Carver’s workshop. When I got home, I had a sort of epiphany. I realized that I had been down on myself for a long time because I couldn’t do what other people could do, and that negativity was hurting my experience as a painter. It was probably hurting my paintings, too. That’s when I started writing. I’m really happy that the article has hit home for so many people. I’ve been told that people were just about to give up being artists, but that now they feel like the pressure has been lifted. We are doing this to ourselves, and it’s pretty sad.”
For many years, I’ve stressed to my plein air students that they are outside to learn not to perform. Performance is an entirely different matter and that takes time and planning. Plein air painting is to experience, observe, and record what you see. In other words, your impression of a place and the conditions that make it special to you. If you don’t finish the study it’s OK. The important thing is to gain knowledge and understanding of your subject when working on site. Speed is not an essential ingredient.
Thank you, Sharon~ your students are very fortunate to have someone guiding them like that; you are a great encouragement!
What I enjoy most about teaching students of all levels, is that although we are painting the same view, everyone’s painting is so different. Some take longer than others, but as I teach the importance of blocking in your composition and finding your values, starting with the darkest to the lightest, then painting in the values, everyone is able to capture what I am teaching but every painting has such a wonderful personality of its own. We are there to express ourselves and some paintings are complete and some are not, but they are all beautiful in the way the artist is able to convey what they were seeing. It is all a learning experience and it is not a competition!
Well said, Laura. That’s one of the things I liked about what Sharon said: “Performance is an entirely different matter and that takes time and planning.” When someone finds out that they are a really good, fast, performance painter, they move into the events created to showcase that: Quick Draws and Wet Painting competitions. But that’s not the direction that most of us are equipped to take. If that’s not our gift, that doesn’t mean that we can’t paint anymore! That you show your students their paintings “are all beautiful” in their own way is equipping them to find themselves as artists, instead of giving them one qualifying hoop to jump through. Thank you for taking such care of our future artists!
For far too long I have been stressed out by Plein air painting and “having to” paint fast. This article has been very helpful to me in that it emphasized the importance of enjoying why I paint in the first place! (Believe me- from the recent rejections to Plein air competitions, Grant requests, etc., I was about to “hang up my paint brush!”) I am a landscape painter who truly loves nature. This article reinforces that “love” I have for what I paint. So, I am just going to go out and enjoy what I am painting, while trying to convey what brought me to that particular scene in the first place! And, thanks to Sharon Griffes Tarr, I “don’t HAVE to finish the study” I started! Kim’s last statement is right on, also – we are all putting this pressure on ourselves and it is pretty sad!
Thank you for not hanging up your brush, Sandi! That’s the same thing that happens to me; I lose sight of my purpose when I start competing for goals. I used to run for fun, but when I found out I could compete for prizes, I started training on a schedule and dieting and weight-lifting and traveling for bigger, better races. I got down to 9% body fat and completely lost the joy of a run on the beach just for fun. I had to get really sick to get my perspective back, I’m embarrassed to say.
I have to remind myself of why I’m here so I don’t slip into that again; I have “Paint Your Joy” all over my studio, and named my blog that as well. Otherwise, I will steal my own happiness by trying to be everywhere and do everything perfectly. We have to make a living, but we are artists, not hacks. I think competition is good, unless it starts to ruin things. We can’t let it ruin things for us; it’s our choice.
Well said. It’s been fun watching you grow.
my experience is that outdoor painting at a fast pace is the best way to learn to capture the essential atmosphere and elements of a Scene. It pays off when you are in a car and the driver won´t stop – I have a sketchbook full.