Monday, February 21, 2011

Beauty is in the Eye of ... the Artist

Living in Paradise, 28x36

It seems that recently I have been in the middle of many conversations about "finding beauty;" what makes something "beautiful;" can a painting with a subject that is too "beautiful" still be good art? Having just come back from the gorgeous island of St. Lucia, I think I can talk pretty honestly about this topic. There is certainly no lack of beauty to paint there. It is, for the most part, like a postcard with its phthalo colored water, magenta clouds, and tropical green foliage.

Balenbouche Beach, 8x10 field sketch
Because I was teaching a workshop while in St. Lucia, I did not take the time to complete any plein air paintings while I was there. I did, however, make a half-dozen or so quick plein air field sketches -- the kind that take about 30 minutes between walking around and helping my students. These are great to do. It usually means I only get down value and color notes, little or no detail, and the compositions may be less than perfect, but the information is so valuable when I get back to the studio to paint a larger painting. What I found myself doing was reigning in the use of the strong colors around me. Because everything was just SO intense I could not make it all work in what I considered to be a "tasteful" way. I sensed I was also having difficulty seeing the colors and their proper values (probably because of the strength of the sunlight and also because of their intense saturation). After all, I had flown from an otherwise gray setting in Tennessee, to this place that was so lush my eyes and brain just did not seem to want to adjust. It was a difficult painting week, but oh, did I mention, I was in a tropical PARADISE!!?? No worries.

Waiting for the Tide, 8x10, field sketch
By the end of the week I just could not take the beauty any longer. (You feel sorry for me don't you.) While holding class on the beach in Soufriere, I was drawn to sketch something less obvious than the Gros Piton. I sketched these old boats. Aaaahhhh... now that's more like it! Why had I been painting the quintessential postcard all week?  That is not what I am usually attracted to paint, so why was I doing it?

I was doing it, perhaps, because somewhere in my life I have been brainwashed into believing that certain things have beauty and certain things do not. Or perhaps I was doing it because I thought that these subjects would be what my students would want to paint, and I needed to be able to help them do so. Yet, when I take a look at my last few years' inventory of work, more than half of my paintings are of seemingly ordinary things like alley ways, dying fish, old shrimp boats, dead trees, or rainy days. All of these subjects became beautiful to me because of their shapes, the light play, the shadows, the color harmony, or some other abstract idea or deeper artistic pull. I'd also like to think that when I do choose a "pretty" subject, it is not because of the subject itself, but is for all of these same reasons.

Day Off, 11x14, field sketch
These trips hosted by Toscana Americana are typically six-day workshops. (Really, I think, five days might be much more sensible because the travel has added to an otherwise intense time of learning, and everyone is really exhausted by this time.) We list in our itinerary an "optional" day, meaning students can choose to paint on their own, take in the local culture, go snorkeling or horseback riding, enjoy a little rest, or paint along side me. I wait to see what the students choose to do before making any plans of my own. Sometimes this means it may just be one student and myself; sometimes it means I have the entire class.

This last sketch is of a small beach situated between the two Piton. We all rode in the back of a pick-up truck driven by the husband of one of the students, down a steep "almost" road to spend an afternoon. Most of the students chose to enjoy a little relaxation on a beach towel. For me, that meant, I had an afternoon off! At first I tried the resting on a beach towel thing. Soon I was lured by my paint box and so began to sketch this little piece. It was drizzling so the colors in the water were a little grayer and the palm trees sat together like a big mass against the sky. I simply liked the shapes and muted colors -- that is all it took to get me up off my towel and romance me interpret to this scene. As I painted this (as opposed to painting one of the Piton again or the beautiful sail boats) many of the local families gathered around. Parents explained to their children what I was painting, commented on how it was so beautiful, and what a lovely day they were having. This, is what the locals see as beautiful... a drizzly day on a small beach... their "every day" life.

I have read and heard many times over, that when John Singer Sargent went out in the field with his pals to paint, he would do many quick field sketches of the most ordinary things. All the while, his peers were still walking around looking for some beautiful thing to paint. This time of study from nature surely played a role in why he became so accomplished. It makes one think. How many miles have I driven, looking for the perfect spot to paint? How many times I have missed an opportunity, because I had to see what was around the next curve?

So here is my big advice. Seek the beauty in any and every thing. There are already plenty of lovely postcards on the racks out there. So stop some place or find some thing that screams ordinary and examine it more fully. Paint the unexpected beauty around you. It is there, if only you will look.