Many painters have by now taken part in a plein air “Quick Draw.” These events started a few decades ago in the Wild West — now they’re going international. They’re painting contests that attract painters who can make a decent painting in a limited time — often an hour — and often in front of wagering collectors. There are prizes, cash and otherwise, as well as peer approval by “Artists’ Choice” and “Best in Show.” The proceeds generally go to a charity. Some Quick Draw Auctions (as in Laguna, Calif., Tucson, Ariz., or Wellsville, Utah) raise in the hundreds of thousands.
So I didn’t think it was out of place this weekend to give our little workshop a time-honoured workout. I issued 11″ x 14″ canvases to everyone and gave them a few minutes to prime, squeeze, and get ready. Then it was “go” and I upped my old hourglass — no matter that it only runs for 37 minutes. Not surprisingly, some of these folks were finished early, while some didn’t finish at all. As these painters worked away in their silence and their solitude — I paid attention. In this game, I noticed, there were four main time-wasters — meticulous pre-drawing, inordinate paint-mixing, compulsive brush-washing, and repetitive re-stroking. I didn’t include thoughtful contemplating as a time-waster because I consider thoughtful contemplating working. And I’ve never said that everybody should paint fast and furious all the time. But regardless of the results, speedy bouts are living lessons in painterly efficiency. They get the sweat up. There’s definitely no time to let the grass grow. Artists can think mighty fast when they have to. They hardly blink. And it’s amazing how fresh, unlaboured and free a lot of the work is. With the pressure cooker, the “doing mind” begins to stand in front of the “habitual mind.” By going speedy the powers of instinct and intuition are unleashed. Enforced speed opens the gates of spontaneity. And the trickling hourglass becomes a metaphor for life itself — the sands of time running out. So much to see. So much to do. So little time.
“The hourglass gives Murphy’s Law a kick in the pants,” said one painter, “Work contracts when time’s limited.”
PS: “Spontaneity is the quality of being able to do something just because you feel like it at the moment, of trusting your instincts, of taking yourself by surprise and snatching from the clutches of your well-organized routine a bit of unscheduled pleasure.” (Richard Iannelli)
Esoterica: Writers have found a similar system. You may have heard of a Three Day Novel Writing Contest. Last year in the Anvil Press version, Meghan Austin and Shannon Mullally completed “Love Block” over the phone from opposite ends of the USA. Their winning novel happened in 72 hours. The contest has taken place every Labour Day Weekend for 27 years. Last year 367 entered and 300 completed. It’s been called a fad, a threat, and a trial by deadline, and it flies in the face of the notion that novels take years of angst. Although every entrant wouldn’t mind the Grand Prize of publication and fame, most enter the contest to shake off writers’ block and to kick-start their creativity.
Cold intensifies observation
by John Pryce
I just returned from a painting trip in Northern Ontario, Canada. The temperature on Sunday morning was minus 26 C but it did warm up to a balmy minus 15 or so. It was a great exercise in making decisions quickly before you froze and there was no time for re-doing an area. I found my observation about value and colour temperature much more intense and I only hope that I will carry this clear thinking into the fairer weather.
Hourglass is rain threat
by Ted Clemens, Sachse, TX, USA
Busy schedule that I have lately, I’ve been doing a lot of field painting, taking my easel on my son’s Boy Scout camping trips and stealing away for an hour and a half or two between meals and activities. I find the deadlining economizes my thinking, paint mixing and brushwork — my hourglass being the rain threat by which we seem to be scheduling our camping lately.
Streamline your painting
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
There’s nothing like plein air work to streamline the painting process. I’ve learned to use just a few brushes and spend almost no time cleaning them in the middle of a painting. I usually use no more than three small brushes and three large brushes: one large brush and one small brush for whites and almost-whites, one of each size for nothing but very dark pigments, and one of each size for everything else. This way I avoid ‘mud’ and can move along through the painting with just an occasional wipe of my brush with a paper towel.
Instincts take over
by Chuck Rawle, Richmond, TX, USA
I have been fortunate to observe a well-known artist use this method in his workshops for several years. A slide is shown on a screen for a short time, during which students do a thumbnail sketch for composition. The slide is turned off and everyone is given a few minutes to mix a few basic colors. Then everyone is given 20 minutes to paint a small canvas, usually 6″x 8″ or 8″x 10″. Most grumble and expect disaster, but frequently they produce their best paintings of the workshop. Without time to second-guess themselves, their instincts take over and they get a sense of light and shadow that is usually destroyed when they have more time to “finish” a painting. This opens their eyes to what happens when they revert to old habits. It is also a good technique to develop because some of the most dramatic and interesting lighting situations only last for a few moments. It also develops your memory to facilitate painting scenes that you don’t have time to paint when you see them. It also gets the artist out of the “mindless daubing” syndrome. Too often we pat the canvas without purpose while we think about what to do next. It is much better to think first and then paint with purpose.
by Mary Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA
The 37-minute paintings posted to the site are amazing, but I think it’s a little misleading to hold these up as what can be accomplished on the quick without too much preparation and artistic histrionics. Most of the painters whose work you’ve listed have web sites that tell the tale of a long history of dedication to their craft. A lot of what makes a painting “good” comes from a foundation hard won and long practiced. Your exercise may free the spirit, but spirit is built from an accumulation of hours learning what the heart wants to know, and it is dedication and persistence that opens the wings of the spirit and allows it to fly. Habit is the wind beneath the wings. It was significant that many of the students in your workshop had a great deal of experience, were represented by several galleries, and had prizes under their belts, yet there they were, still learning and pushing the envelope, not satisfied with what they’d already accomplished and wanting to do more.
Not a foot race
by Karl Dempwolf, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Most will not disagree with what you had to say about spontaneity and dashing off a sketch in less than an hour. It’s a good exercise, it limits the amount of thinking and lets your emotions and experience go to work. But the reason I no longer participate in these quick draw events, and I’ve done my share, is that art and the creative process becomes a foot race, an Olympic event.
I recall a number of years ago, just north of Santa Barbara being in just such a contest. Ted Goershner had his supporters behind him, I had mine, and other artists had their support from the crowd. Ted finished first and his supporters went wild with cheers and clapping. Who among established artists in the world wants their collectors to think that they regularly create a finished painting in less than an hour and then demand sometimes more than $5000? I just don’t think art and the creative process is something that needs a stopwatch, or competition. I do understand the need to create excitement so that galleries can make sales and I’m afraid these events will be with us until someone comes up with an even more creative way to make art buying and art creating an even bigger, maybe a NASCAR like event.
24-hour marathon drawing
by Russ Williams, Austin TX, USA
Another interesting “fast art” challenge that’s becoming popular is the 24-hour comic (an idea by Scott McCloud). It has turned into an annual event in which sometimes dozens of comic creators get together (typically at a comic shop) for a 24-hour marathon drawing session, each trying to create a finished 24-page comic in 24 hours.
Horse drawn buckboard with easel
by Ann Harris, Willis, TX, USA
The 37 minute painting reminds me so much of my grandfather who at the start of statehood in Oklahoma would travel from small town to small town in the southeast part of the state with his horse drawn buckboard. My grandmother dressed in her finest gowns would drive as my grandfather stood at an easel in the back painting and talking to the crowds that would gather to see what was going on. He painted fast and usually sold his art at the end of the street before moving to the next town.
Total rush painting
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
This is a subject near and dear to me. It’s a total rush painting outside with a feeling of urgency and the knowledge that you have to pick your kid up from school in 45 minutes. To speed things up even more, lay out your palette in one of those plastic boxes with a lid, set up the easel at the back of the car, and have brushes, turps, etc. back there too. Then drive around on a windy day with lots of fast moving clouds. Stop when the scene is right and paint right there in the street. A busy street works to your advantage because passersby don’t like to stop and chat as much as in a pleasant park, and passersby can sometimes get irritated with the artist when she just smiles and doesn’t stop to chat. Something about the clouds sailing past, the light changing rapidly, the trucks rumbling away and a pressing appointment brings out the best in me as an artist. I hate to say exhilarating because everyone says that, but it is.
I’ve become like an excitement junky with this kind of painting. Too much time and a foggy day sends my painting into overworked detail. If I have more time, I make myself do 3 or 4 small paintings so I don’t get bogged down. I haven’t reached the point that I can do this with hundreds of discerning art collectors, however, but when that time comes, I’ll be ready.
Methods of staying fresh
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
We can maintain that freshness of beginning, of being brought to a sense of awe in every moment. One of the keys to this is dropping expectation. Then the work has a chance to unfold uniquely. Another element in keeping a fresh perspective is to see with the eyes instead of through the biases of the mind. To see and experience every moment as it truly is, allows us to realize it is a new experience. Even if it appears subtly different, it is never the same as it was the day before, the hour before, or even the second before. In a practice of seeing with the eyes open, we become aware of how we can breath into each experience, no matter how often we’ve done it, a sense of this new place we are at each time. Catch it, don’t miss it! If you do, you miss the vitality and wisdom of each moment. Quiet the mind and see. Gratitude will naturally follow, opening you further.
Fresh from the rocks
by Ann Jackson, Wyoming, USA
For over three years now I’ve been using rocks as my canvas. The results are fascinating, always unexpected and never reproducible. Each painting starts as a blank mind. It would be impossible to have an idea and find a rock that would be appropriate. I look at the rocks, pick them up, hold and feel them and look closely at the natural coloring, textures and shapes. The bumps and dips and texture of the rock are fascinating and incorporated into the painting. Pretty soon a rock finds me and tells me what to paint. I may take it home to my studio or I may work it in my back yard. Each rock handles paint totally differently and not uniformly throughout the rock. Rather than covering the whole rock with paint, I try to incorporate its natural coloring and shape into the painting. Each painting is fresh and new and a surprise even to myself.
Sense of wonder
by Banne Younker, Prescott, AZ, USA
The sense of wonder is an innate part of those lucky enough to possess it. The perfectionist, the producer, the critical, search for this wonderful characteristic. Children, adults who never grow up, those who don’t really care about opinions of others usually can dip into wonder and come up with several scenarios fitting a topic. I am married to a wonderful man who just doesn’t get abstract. He seems to feel abstract is a cop out for someone who can’t illustrate. He is what is called hubris (doesn’t know that he doesn’t know). There is a good reason for this type of human, just as there is a good reason for those of us who wonder. Finding your niche provides a sense of comfort and eventually success. If you have difficulty wondering, exercises can free up the sense of wonder you do possess. Nothing is carved in stone unless that is what you choose. We are, to a degree, in charge of ourselves. Finding out who you are is the first step. Accepting who you are can be the hard part. Enhancing who you are is the fun part.
Generosity pays off
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
Last week I went to “Straight From the Heart,” an auction of paintings by well-known Canadian artists in aid of the Creative Spirit Art Centre hoping to acquire one of your prints. I bid on three, but they went beyond my reach a good thing for the Art Centre. Disappointing, but the experience was such a good one: I met Ellen Anderson, the founding director of the Centre, a dedicated individual (originally from Sandon, B.C.) who is working to build a downtown art museum to house “Outsider” art. To quote from their website: “Creative Spirit has taken the role of being one of Canada’s largest collections and public exhibitors of Outsider Art and Art Brut [which]remain outside the mainstream of Canadian galleries and collections. Our purpose is to provide a place for disabled artists to create and exhibit their art. ”
I would not have gone to the show had it not been for the twice-weekly letter, consequently would never have seen the show, or met Ellen, or become aware of the Creative Spirit Art Centre, or become a supporter. Generosity pays off in myriad ways.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.