Saturday, January 5, 2013

About finding landscape subjects

Rembrandt, Adoration of the shepherds

 I get a lot of e-mails from readers, and I guess they are a big part of my reward for writing the blog. It is nice to hear from people who have read it. I have received a lot of Christmas e-mails and New Years greetings from blog readers, thank you all. I try to reply to them all briefly, but some do get by me.  I received this e-mail the other day.

I just finished reading your blog, its taken me close to 2 years!  It took so long because I tended to savor it.  Some days reading just one post, other days reading a couple.  Its been a fantastic insight into the life of an artist.  I really have learned a tremendous amount, and it has helped steer me in directions for further study. --Thank You.

  I would really like to know how you pick your spots for doing plein air.  Is it just one thing that grabs your eye?  A bunch of things that you move around on your canvas?  Does it matter that much since you are designing your painting anyway?  

This may sound trivial to you, but I have a devil of a time trying to find a good spot.  I think I want everything to be perfect.  Inevitably, I spend a good first half hour or more just walking around trying to settle.  And then, once I am half way thru painting, wishing I had picked one of the other spots.

 ----------------a reader

 I have written so much, I think I have written about that too, but the blog is a giant labyrinth of over a thousand posts and even if I have written about that before it is a good suggestion for a post just the same. 

There are few if any perfect locations. Those that do exist  must be out west. Every location I find in New England has SOMETHING that resonates with me, but they all have problems. I too used to drive for hours trying to find the "perfect" place, I haven't for a long time. I joke with my painting buddies that I feel it through my feet when I am  in the right place, it is somewhat a matter of intuition. I think that I register the feel of a place. I know there is something there. A lot may be wrong with the scene, but there is a "feel' to it. But, I do have New England, a very special place, to work with. I have New Hampshire, the coast of Massachusetts and Vermont at hand which are very evocative and American. Pure nature is good everywhere though. A couple of trees and a field is really all you need to paint a fine landscape.

The important thing is not to be subject driven. Look  for collections of shapes that work well together, rather than the perfect group of objects. Try to feel the scene. be aware of how it makes you feel and then think about how you can amplify that to make  the viewer respond to it. I often feel a quiet wistfulness or nostalgia in some places, even when I have never been there before. Some seem  haunted, others are triumphs of natures beauty and  make me feel the joy of being alive and out in nature. Some places have great architecture or a historic  interest. The important thing is to develop a sensitivity to the POETRY of place. But mostly I look for interesting collections of abstract shapes that work well together. I look for design possibilities. I have painted thousands of landscapes so I am aware of set ups that have bitten me in the past. Those are problems that I have run into before that I know are going to be hard  to resolve.
Thinking design makes lots of places paintable. I used to paint with some old guys who are now dead. They would stroll out into a location and set up their easels and I would wonder "what the hell do they see out there?"I was looking in front of them, rather than at them, for the secret.

THIS IS IMPORTANT...... You bring the art with you into the landscape. Maybe out west in Montana there are perfect places to paint, but in the rest of the world, what makes the picture, arrives with you. It is in your excitement, your intent and your empathy.You have to be looking from the world of art at the actual world, not looking at the world for art. A painter with lots of art flowing in their veins can make a fine painting in the most ordinary of places. 

There is a knack for choosing spots, I am sure it is a developed skill. The master landscapist finds subjects in places the rest of us would walk by without recognizing. Besides being on the lookout for attractive arrangements of shapes, a good landscapist knows ways to deal with the imperfect designs presented to him. If there is something in the landscape that seems to offer a possibility, the practiced painter probably has discovered a way in a previous painting, of dealing with that problem. A beginner looks at the landscape and asks " What does it look like", a more practiced hand asks "what can I do with this?" Here then, are some bullets;
  • Ask  yourself, what is there that is appealing to me about this place? what could I make here?
  • Think about how you would say that in paint, not how you would copy the look of the place, but how you would express it in the language of paint.
  •  Develop a tool box of solutions for dealing with the problems in the landscape before you.To do that you must of course learn to recognize them.
  • Know what direction you are facing. As the day lengthens the sun is going to move and that is going to present either opportunities or problems. You will need experience and perhaps a compass to do that. 
  • Look at lots of historic paintings. It is very useful to have a mental library of how great painters who came before you dealt with similar scenes. It is useful to know how others  have handled the problems with which they were also faced.
  • Keep a couple of different format canvasses in the trunk of your car, "maybe that scene would work on a long rectangle instead of this squarish 16 by 20 I planned to use? maybe I need a vertical canvas?"
  • Simplifying is the root of design, maybe the scene before you is too fractured and complex, would it work better if you left out something, or reduced it into a few simpler forms?
  • Read Edgar Payne! (Composition of Outdoor Landscape Painting) Learn about design stems, sometimes knowing that will give you a way to impose a design on a scene that doesn't quite work.
  • Try to be empathetic. See if you can become attuned to the "feel" of the landscape. This is sensitivity. Cultivate that.
  • Read Emerson.
  • Make thumbnail sketches. The first thumbnail you do will be the obvious and  often lackluster "take" on the scene. After you have done a few you might hit on something more creative. It is like returning several times and taking a couple of more runs at the project.
  • Find a place that has lots of possible pictures. Monet did that with his garden and those radioactive haystacks.There are locations, like grand views that offer up for the painter but a single subject. There are others from which you can pull a hundred different paintings."What if I stood over there?" There was a stream through the snowy woods near where I once lived in Maine, that I painted over and over.When I didn't want to search for a new location or drive too far, I always went there.
You won't  learn this in a single season, you have to make lots of paintings. That would be true of anything you want to learn to do, incidentally. People develop  the ability to do things through repeated effort.


I have scheduled another Snowcamp, a winter painting workshop in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Snowcamp is the most fun I have all year!The workshop  is held at a rambling, late 19th century inn,  The Sunset Hill in Franconia, New Hampshire which is very romantic and old timey.The workshop will be held January 26 through 28.The inn is the perfect place to do a class and the scenery is fabulous. The White mountains are spread before the inn like a movie set. 
It might be cold, but the inn is right at our backs as we work, so we can run inside by the fire and drink more coffee if it becomes too much. The views from the inn are so stupendous there is really no reason to leave the grounds, so we don't lose any time to driving to our locations. At lunchtime the inn brings our sandwiches etc, right to us. The inn has helped me do workshops for years now. They even provide us with our own dining room, where we can eat together around a big round table every night.  I do a talk  on art and design while our dinner is prepared by the inn's chef. 
The workshop is very intense! It is as intense as I can figure out how to make it, in fact. We will run very long days from breakfast till evening. I try to cram as much information as I possibly can into three days. That's a short time, I always wish I had three months. I do a demo every morning  and then in the afternoon the students paint and I  run from easel  to easel doing individual instruction. I can save you YEARS of screwing around!

If you are coming from far away, many have, it is easy to fly into Manchester airport. That is a full sized regional airport serviced by several carriers. You can rent a car there and be at the inn in an hour and a half. Boston Logan Airport is another hour to the south, but may save you a connection. 

If you have never painted in, or been to New  England, it is a very special  part of  the country and the White Mountains, where the workshop is held are both beautiful and historic. There is much here that hasn't changed since the 19th century. I am  originally from Minnesota, but I have been in New England  for about 30 years. I love the special feel of  the place and New  Hampshire is a very authentic part of  it. Besides New Hampshire has no sales tax .

If you are interested, please click here.


jimserrettstudio said...

Wow, I had to read that twice.
Just so many amazing insights and pieces of wisdom.

You my friend are a artistic treasure.
Thank you.

Dale Cook said...

Thanks for the post. I was out at 8 am to catch the early morning light on snow - had about 1 hour of taking photos as the sun came over the hill to when it clouded over.

I can see the sense of becoming familiar with one location: what time of day, angle or light conditions are best suited for those abstract shapes.

I will reread your post and keep it in mind. Wish I could be at your workshop in NH. Drove up rte 9 this week from Bangor to NB. There were so many places I would have loved to stop and paint.

Anonymous said...

It is posts like these that make this blog simply flow with precious gold! There's a lot of great ideas and concepts here, Monsieur Stape! Thanks so much for sharing!

I make mental notes of places as I drive around, constantly on the look out for a point of interest for a future painting. Then, when it's time to paint outdoors, I recall one that I've mentally marked, and head there.

I'm also guilty of driving around looking for that perfect spot. But I've since grown tired of such wasted time.

Edgar Payne moved whole mountains and lakes around in his designs. Once you accept that you have the power to move mountains, you have the power to take an ordinary scene before you and make it more interesting from a painterly perspective. Easier said than done, and I'm still practicing. But it's part of the fun of being a painter!

Thanks Monsieur!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks! I am glad to be useful.It is nice to hear from people who read what I write.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I should have mentioned that. Keep a mental checklist of places you pass that might be good locations.
The more confident you are to move things around the more places become paintable.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is a big help to paint the same location repeatedly. It helps alot when you know what the light is going to do over the course of the day. Also it is useful to know upfront where the problem gremlins lie awaiting you, having met them before.

stapeliad said...

Have fun at Snowcamp!!

Stape- It's been almost one year already since I was at Snowcamp and I can honestly say those three days had a huge impact on my plein air painting. The info is all here in your blog but there's something about actually being there which made a difference. You have mentioned "downloading" before and I think it's true. Thanks!

Philip Koch said...

This is one of Stape's all time bests. I honestly can't think of anything to add as he's hit all the bases squarely on the head. Very impressed.

OK,I lied, one little thing I can add: - so often when I've been out painting after selecting just the best subject and viewpoint possible, I'll notice something else off to the left that would have made as good, or even better, a subject. The best thing to do is return another day and tackle that second idea too.

Anyway, thanks again for such a thoughtful post. Stape maybe writing posts less often, but he's still sharp as a tack.

I have done all sorts of informal "suites" of paintings all done from the same spot but looking off in different directions. It's OK if something hits you over the head immediately. And it's also OK if it reveals its potential to you only gradually.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks Stapeliad:
I am glad I was useful to you.I am a downloader, but I lack empathy, it seems so foreign.........

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey Philip!
Good to know you are still out there. That post was written in about three goes. Since I am posting less frequently I can file them to a sharper point. ,it is a good idea to return and work out the different possibilities of a location.The more you design the more possibilities there are. You are a serious designer so you know that.

Robert J. Simone said...

Not being subject driven is very good advice. Viewers will enjoy your subject more if your effort was not subject driven.

I also like the thought of taking your art with you. Finding it within rather than searching for it without. Looking at paintings, reading great literature, both will nurture internal artfulness. Working mostly in Florida I find reading Marjorie Kinan Rawlings a great inspiration for feeling and painting the landscape.

Marsha Hamby Savage said...

This post was stunning in the amount of information you are putting out for the good of all artists. Thank you... I have fallen in the trap of walking and looking instead of standing and finding something that caught my eye. I have shared that wonderful paragraph that starts with "This is important" and also your blog link on my Facebook page. As another said, you are a treasure trove of information and giving!

Maineland said...

I hope you saw Robert Genn's excellent post on J.E. H. Macdonald's method of finding a comfortable place to sit and than looking around for something to paint. I have found myself on the Maine shore looking for a level place to put my easel with a butt level rock several feet away to sit and study the work in progress. I also tend to look for an intimate composition rather than get over whelmed by the beauty of the wider scene.