Friday, May 1, 2009

Street painting

Edward Seago "Sunlight and Shadow Pin Mill" © The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery
Image from an exhibition catalogue, Edward Seago by Richard Green gallery, London 1994

I painted yesterday and today in the Boston Public Garden, that's next to the commons. Its Bostons version of Central Park. It was awfully nice being out in the warm spring sun. I got in touch with my inner lizard.
Over the course of the day I talked to about 900 people as I tried frantically to paint a group of flowering trees in front of some of Bostons grand 19th century architecture. The leaves were unfurling as I painted. Every time I looked up it was different. I don't know if the picture is going to work or not. It will certainly need to reprocessed in the studio.

All day long people talked to me and I enjoy that. I have done so much street painting that I am totally comfortable with onlookers. I also have heard all the things they usually say. From the most perceptive like, "Where do you show your art?" to the dumbest " Are you painting this here?"

I hear a lot about peoples own attempts at painting. A woman came up to me today and told me she had been drawing some but tried to paint and it hadn't gone very well. I told her there was no reason to think she couldn't learn it. Painting is no more difficult than ophthalmic surgery or classical violin! I warbled encouragingly.

She can't even conceive of how hard I have worked to be able to do this. Often they say "what a gift" as if I just got out of bed one day and could do it. I know when they say the gift thing, they mean well and that they mean to indicate they think it special and out of the ordinary.

I have noticed a funny sort of phenomenon with painting, at least for me:

It won't stay learned.

Now my father was an eye doctor. Every morning when he got out of bed he knew how to be an eye doctor. He had it down. He didn't go to work some days to discover he hadn't a clue what the hell he was doing. But I do. Some days I wake up and I have no idea how to make a painting. I can make a really fine painting one week and the next I can't. I have many times become aware of a repeated mistake or problem I am having. I work hard to overcome it, and do. Then about a year later there it is again in a painting and I have to beat it back once more.

Sometimes a painter will say to me that they are self conscious about painting where there are crowds of people, because their painting might not come out very well. People generally don't know the difference.I have seen them Ga-ga over a painting that had gone terribly wrong and I have seen them walk by my best work without a glance. Their opinion means nothing. Painting is so far from most peoples daily experience,and they didn't learn about it in school
So I work at being patient with them, and try to remember that I am an ambassador for the painting world when I am meeting people out there.

The newspapers and magazines either ignore painting or only publicize the oddest modern art they can find. The newspapers like a good entertaining story better than the art itself. Usually their writers know nothing about art they just have a job to do and that is to cover paper with print. A photograph of an artist painting outside is a good way to do that.

For many years I had a gallery in Rockport, Massachusetts. One week several people came in to ask me "was that you in the Los Angeles Times?" I would say, no, I don't think so. Then someone brought the LA Times in and showed it to me. I had no idea the newspaper photographer had taken my picture. Rockport was an art colony and tourist town, my picture was often taken hundreds of times a day. But there I was, in the travel and leisure section, full color, front page and above the fold, as they say in the newspaper biz.

It was a nice big picture. There I was working away on a promontory overlooking the historic harbor with the sailboats and the yacht club and all the people and seagulls and lobstermen, all milling around below me. On my big Gloucester easel I have a painting about 30 by 30. I had been working on it for a week and the painting is singing, its as good as I get. You could see the picture and you could see what I was painting beside it. It was a very professional piece of work that won me prizes, and I sold about a zillion prints of it. I kept the painting rather than selling it, so my daughters would have a good one when the death bunny comes hop, hop, hoppin along. Yep, there I was and there was the painting and that fabulous view that had been painted by Aldro Hibbard and Emile Gruppe and Carl Peters and Reynolds Beal.

The caption below the photo read "A local artist tries his hand at oil painting"


Jesse said...

Wow! How condescending is that? "Tries his hand?" I admire how you let all that roll past you.

I hate public interaction, and once I was questioned for quite a while by a police officer who what sure I was up to no good. He asked what I was doing. I replied "Painting" and gestured towards my paintbox. He thought for a bit. Then asked what I was painting. I gestured to the marsh in front of me, that my canvas apparently didn't quite represent. I could tell it all didn't click for him. So he ran my name, address, license and everything through the computer, and finally let me get back to it.

Christine Walker said...

The death bunny? I hope that he stays away for a long, long time.

jeff said...

I have not had to many problems painting outdoors. Most people are polite and the ones who ask "what are you painting"? or "are you painting that"? I just say "I'm painting that tree over yonder" or something like that.

I once had a security cop ask me questions when I was down at the fish pier in Boston.

The other day I was in Ipswich painting a salt marsh and the only thing that objected was a tick, which bit me.

The worse story I have heard was from a painter who lives in New Jersey and he has been told to leave spots he was painting by police (national trust land is not for you and me, even though we paid for it) and having food thrown at him.

willek said...

Your paragraph about "It won't stay learned" struck a chord with me. I have those feelings all the time. In talking with others, some of them big boys, they admit to similar things and say it is not uncommon. I think good process (Herding the sheep) helps a lot. These insights are really good to hear and are rarely admitted. Thanks, WillEK

Stapleton Kearns said...


I suppose the lesson to be learned from that is to keep your inspection sticker, tags etc. up to date because you never know. If you are a wanted criminal its probably best to let your girlfriend drive.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I hope so too, but he has already been visiting my pets, and the occasional friend.
I know an excellent painter who has a big closet into which he throws his best painting every year, to leave as an estate for his children.
I'll try not to bring that bunny up again....................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Sorry to hear about the tick. The experts say to tuck your pants into your socks. That's just not a good look for me. I think when I was younger I could have pulled it off.I do spray my ankles with deep woods OFF.The rest of me, I spray with Eau Sauvage.

Ipswich is about an hour from here.
I should mention for the readers on the west coast that Ipswich has more standing 17th century homes than any other town in America.You guys out there have great weather. We have great architecture.
Sometimes our weather here is great.........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...


Here's something I have learned. You can admit to struggling to make your art, throwing the weak ones away etc. People will make up their own minds, and you don't have to pretend that it is effortless and you never break a sweat.
The same goes for praising the work of other painters. If someone does a good painting, let them and others know, and do it with enthusiasm. It won't diminish you in others eyes one bit.I knew an artist once, who believed that only HE could paint a picture.

Sandra Galda said...

You know, I think I saw you there. I stopped to see your work and you did seem frantically trying to concentrate, so I didnt say anything to you. I thought to myself, now this has got to be a professional artist...what a master piece. I had a black cardigan with a zebra patterned top daughter was with me---she has rapunzel length hair. Were you painting a large pink flowering tree? There was another artist painting a smaller canvas behind you a bit. It was a gorgeous day, we ate at cheers and came back for a swan boat ride. ...

Stapleton Kearns said...


You should have said hello. It was me. The artist working behind me was Sergio Roffo.We had an absolutely great time out there. It was a perfect day and there were so many people in the Public Garden.I like painting in crowds. When the weather is nice it is a really great place to be. I love Boston.

Unknown said...

Jeez, that last line had me rolling. Obviously, like you said, the writer wouldn't know if a good painting kicked then in the 'nads.

I used to think like that too. I would go from hobby to hobby trying to find the thing I was "naturally" good at. It took me a while to realize being good comes from countless hours of hard work.

Watch this Michael Jordan commercial. I think it succinctly sums up the point you were trying your hand at.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I think the media wants us to believe that people just ARE good at things because there is magic in that. The idea that someone has to learn something seems too ordinary.