Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Day in the Life...

I finally got the opportunity the other day to try to paint the scene with the curving path and rolling farm fields near Auvers-sur-Oise that I talked about in my recent post and it was, unfortunately, one of those days when things seemed destined to go wrong. I got out to the spot early and it was cold and bright, exactly the type of weather I like best, but within a few minutes stuff started to happen…

First, as I was setting up I realised a key screw had fallen out somewhere along the way and my field easel was unstable and lopsided. It would still stand up but I found myself adjusting the legs to compensate for the angle of the lopsidedness. That was pretty comical, but I decided to keep going.

Then other stuff started happening… first of all, not one, but two, unlucky flies decided to commit suicide in puddles of freshly squeezed paint on my palette. Sad sacrifice to art, but, head bowed for a short moment of silence after each one, I kept going. I wasn’t feeling good, however, about the painting as it was going on to the canvas. I was kind of struggling, despite all the prep work I’d done in that place before and in the back of my mind I kept remembering a quote I’d read somewhere that was attributed to John Singer Sargent - that if the initial placement and establishment of the painting on the canvas didn‘t feel right - that no matter how much the artist worked with it, it never would - better to start another painting. But I kept going, of course, and then, after I’d finally committed myself with big swaths of paint for the underpainting, a breeze picked up and blew up a layer of fine dirt. Drag. Or as the French would say, Zut! After chasing down my wide-brimmed hat, which had also blown off in the gust, I realised the canvas was full of dirt. I was dismayed, but then was thinking well remember those Monet beach scenes where there’s sand in the paint?, and besides, it gives texture, right? The problem was that this was mostly really fine dirt - so it acted like pigment when I tried to paint over some of the lighter parts - and just muddied all the colour. Imagine a fine layer of brown ochre pigment being peppered all over all your delicately blended paints, kind of like cocoa powder sprinkled on top of a cappuccino. Drag-o-rama. Double ZUT!

About that time I spotted the first of what seemed to be a large group of randonneurs (French for hikers) coming into my field of vision, walking up the country road I was painting, heading straight for me. There were about 25 people in the first group. Yes, the first group - because within the next half hour there were about 4 more groups that came up the road. Counting the stragglers I figure a total of around 200 people came by within the following two hours. And this is in a pretty isolated spot - or at least I had thought so before that day. As the different groups and personalities shuffled by, many were very curious, as people often are when they come upon a painter at work out “dans la nature” and, as many of you plein air painters can attest to in similar circumstances I'm sure, they had an interesting range of reactions. Some folks, usually the parents trying to corral restless children, insisted on standing off at a stone’s throw whispering in little huddles - as if I wouldn’t notice them. Funny, people must imagine you’re so concentrated on your painting that your hearing is disengaged and it’s not going to be noticed if they stage whisper. Others coming up and standing over my shoulder opining unabashedly about my efforts to each other and basically ignoring me. And then still others who definitely did want to engage me in conversation, but conversations that ran along long the lines of “Oh I really admire what you are doing Madame, I wish I could do the same, I have always wanted to be a painter. Have you always wanted to be an artist? Oh you have an accent, where are you from? Do you like France? Do you realise Van Gogh painted here? Yes, it is rather cheeky of you to paint in the same place as Van Gogh. Don't you think? I wouldn’t dare. What’s the name of your website? Oh, that’s too long a name, can’t you write it down for me? I don't have any paper with me, but you have lots of supplies there. By the way, my brother is an Internet genius and he can help you figure out how to use the Internet to market your artwork. First thing he will do is to help you figure out how to choose a shorter name for your blog. Can I take a picture of you and your painting… now can you hold the brush up to the canvas and paint in that blue area? Do you realise your sky is looking a little brown?"

By about the third group I had picked up the story of how they all belonged to a regional hiking group and that was their day to explore the Auvers-sur-Oise area. Fantastique...quelle chance!

While all this on an average day wouldn’t have bothered me too much, at least in smaller doses, but 200 people coming by on one of my worst days was hard to swallow. I realised that while I’m not against having pleasant conversations with people who come along and had got somewhat used to dealing with folks’ comments while working in plein air, it sure is a lot easier to deal with them when you feel happy about the work that you’re producing on your canvas. On a bad day - it’s not much fun.

After about an hour, between the third and forth wave of hikers, I decided to abandon my carefully plotted out, but unlucky, painting and try to do something much looser to clear out the bad vibes and get a fresh start. (Finally listening to my inner John Singer Sargent.) I had thrown an extra canvas in my car in the morning, so I pulled that out, together with a palette knife, took a couple of deep breaths and started painting anew. Normally I love to paint the looser the better, and forgoing brushes altogether often helps me get out of the critical place in my head. Painting with sticks and/or fingers are the most fun and can move me out of some very frustrated places. But, not this day, it just wasn’t flowing. The second painting was even worse than the first, a frustrated mess really. And then suddenly I realised there was another group headed up the road toward me, and it looked like a big one, at least 50 people. I’m not proud, I have to admit I had to move fast to get the really ugly knife painted canvas in to the trunk of my car, and to get the less ugly first canvas back on to my easel in just enough time to steel myself for the onslaught of comments. Shameful but true.

I admit it - it got that bad.

After that last group passed, and I realized how low I had sunk I finally gave up and started packing up my things. In the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara: tomorrow would be another day. And some day I’ll try again. But I will absolutely check the Internet first on the Hikers Association of the Oise Valley, to make sure they are hiking somewhere else that day. And, maybe I’ll take along three empty canvases… and fly repellent.

So, as you might imagine I’ve debated long and hard about putting this unlucky canvas up here on my blog. Maybe it’s not SO bad, but it’s not great either. That elusive painting spot stays on my list of scenes I want to paint, but I’ll wait - probably quite a while - before trying again. So, here it is, and yes, the black spots you see in the sky and foreground are dirt. Click on the image for a close-up view. I’ll see if I can maybe pick the dirt out later when the painting is dry. And tomorrow will be another day.

And for an example of a lovely, beautifully loose painting of a country road, check out Carol Marine's work here. A fantastic artist whose blog I follow regularly and to whose level of accomplishment I aspire.


LeSan said...

I loved your post. I loved your paintings and I was relating to you every tortured step of the way. When I do outdoor art shows I try to paint something because people do love to see that. I am however a lousy outdoor painter and even more lousy at public painting. I commend your courage and tenacity. I might have slipped off to the shrubbery in your situation.

magicmyst said...

Hi, I really enjoyed reading this passage of writing. Doesn't everyone have days that are not going as well as others. It is terrible but true that these people can effect you so badly. I am sure the more self conscious you became the worst your painting would have become. The finished product is actually quite charming. Maybe attacking it another day will get the result that you are wishing for. Kay

mike rooney studios said...

wow-what a day you had. i can really sympathize with you. and i loved the sargent tip. henry hensche at the cape cod school of art said it too. must be something to it if these two master painters say it right. thanks for the post!

Liza Hirst said...

What an entertaining post! I had a lot of fun reading it, although I did feel sorry for you, too, Aliaena! But as you took it with humour and brought that across so well in your description, the day somehow was a success nevertheless - even if you didn't achieve a painting that pleases you. I actually quite like what you've done - it definitely isn't SO bad!! Its not bad at all!!!
I do share your admiration for Carol Marine. She is also one of my heroes!

René PleinAir. said...

You are being much too harsh to yourself. Not the best piece of work but okay, you can't win them all, you did however met a lot of people, who knows what will become of that, and did a little practice along the way too, with a (not soo bad) painting to take home as well! All in one, a day well spend!!

Sharon Wright said...

This painting is actually quite lovely, ( I was expecting great swathes of mud),I think it captures the place very well, and will be a constant reminder of a day when you learned a lot! You are far braver than me, you won't catch me painting en plein air, far too self conscious, but I imagine instant feedback like you had could be valuable, as long as it was all positive of course!
So next time.....the masterpiece!

Kathleen Weber said...

What a great story. My sympathies. Nothing worse than going to a place thinking you'll have it all to yourself and then having 200 people show up. Next time will be better, I'm sure!

Candace X. Moore said...

Aliaena, Haven't heard from you in a while. Hope all is well. Looking forward to future posts. Best in 2010. Candace.