..."Give this to your cousin George" the unfamiliar lady commanded me. It was Christmas time and I had just been handed a present and given my marching orders. The only problem was, I didn't have a cousin George. "You mean my cousin Eddie?" I asked, tossing absurdity back to her since I knew my cousin Eddie wasn't there. "No! George!" She turned away and I sat with the present on my lap and pondered the problem. Once again these troublesome adults weren't making a bit of sense. I knew better than to argue or disobey and obviously I was expected to know how to do what I'd just been told to do. People were gathering around me excitedly ripping open packages. One after another they held up their treasures shrieking "look what I got!" A smiling lady urged me to open "my" present. I hesitated.
What has this all got to do with plein air painting you might ask? Standing out in nature surrounded by an abundance of possibilities, can leave you feeling as bewildered and paralyzed as that 4 year old. How many times have you set out to paint, full of high hopes? You know you want to paint and the possibilities are everywhere. You set up and rush in hoping your painting will capture some of the kid-in-a-candy-store excitement you can barely contain. But too often, you fall short. You take all the steps you think you're supposed to but the result is not what you expected.
..."Go ahead! Open it!" the lady repeated. I tore into the package and held up it's contents. "Look what I got!" I exclaimed, faithfully following the example of everyone else. Though I held up a pair of boys corduroy pants, I didn't expect was the chorus of laughter that followed.
When I decided to spend the year painting the National Park in my home town for the centennial year of the National Park Service, I realized I needed to get a bit more organized with my thoughts if I was going to get the result I anticipated. On my first day out, I stood at the ready surveying the beauty of white sand and emerald water, coastal marsh and live oak forest. The multitude of choices temped me to open my paint box, but instead I used the day to walk around making rough sketches, and taking photographs. The sketches, like this one used for the painting above, were barely more than scribbles
but they were enough to know whether the scene would work in paint. The photos were to study at home to compare with my initial impression. They were disappointing because they flattened the scenes compressing the sense of depth. They were so different from what my eye saw that if I had to judge the worthiness of the scenes from the photos only, I wouldn't have painted them.
For the rest of the year, I'll take the time to walk, choosing spots and sketching first. It definitely helps eliminate some of the unknowns of outdoor painting.