Yesterday, Susan Winslow of Dana Point, California wrote, “Last weekend I took a two-day workshop from the excellent plein air painter Frank Eber. Now a few of us are going to meet tomorrow to paint. We have the equipment, but are intimidated at painting in public. Any suggestions?”
Thanks, Susan. I appreciate that women may have more concerns about painting in public, especially alone, than do men, but together you should be fine. Alone or in a group, the main aggravations are the inane remarks from strangers who wander over to see what you’re doing.
“That’s pretty good — you should take up painting,” is an encouragement I’ve been offered more than once.
Decency obliges me to respond to these folks, but sometimes I wish Dorothy would just bite them.
Funnily, when you work alone, most passersby give you a wide berth — more so in Eastern and European cultures. On the other hand, some painters welcome intercourse, and even take the opportunity to hand out their cards, upcoming show invitations, or sell directly “right off the easel.” In our area there’s currently a guy in a green smock who I’m told makes a living doing this.
After coming off a workshop with a top watercolourist like Frank Eber, I think it’s important to go out again as soon as possible while those long soft washes and the Eber spirit are still fresh in your mind.
Curiously, people are more likely to stay away if you wear a big hat. Apparently, hat wearers these days are perceived as more “independent and private.” Going bare-headed attracts interlopers. Ear-buds are useful deterrents as well. Sitting in (or near) a cheap panel van puts them off completely.
Those heading out for the first time often make the mistake of driving around all day looking for the perfect scene. You can actually set down anywhere as you’ll almost always see something that you didn’t notice at first. “Everything outside is exciting to look at,” said the great outdoor painter Irwin Greenberg (1922-2009). “There are hundreds of paintings all around.”
PS: “Plein air painting is the perfect forum for learning, as it is observation-driven. Placing technique secondary to observation is the essence of working the field.” (Ken Auster)
Esoterica: Painting in the remote out-of-doors is the best plein air of all. Occasional passersby, stumbling on the vision of a painter at work, share the magic and are sometimes encouraged to stay for tea. I’ve made lifelong friends this way. “It’s important to realize how connected we all are as humans,” says the outdoor painter Rodney Cobb, “especially as plein air artists.” In my own work in the Rockies I’ve also come face to face with mice, yellow-bellied marmots, raccoons, porcupines, wolves and one lone wolverine. So far no grizzlies. If these letters stop coming you’ll know that I have.
‘Art For Sale – Inquire Within’
by Michael Chesley Johnson, ME, USA / NB, Canada
As a professional painter who depends on sales for a living, I actually ‘encourage’ the public to interact with me. I set up so I am accessible and so people won’t trip over my gear. I always have my business cards and copies of my workshop schedule to pass out. I even have a little sign I can set up by my easel that reads, “Art for Sale – Inquire Within.” There are times, of course, when I need to focus, especially if I am working on new projects that require me to “stretch” my plein air painting skills. For these, I try to go where I’m pretty sure I won’t be disturbed. If I do get visitors, I chat with them a moment and then politely let them know that I am, indeed, working, and that I paint for a living. Most times, people respect this and will leave me to my space.
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Painting in a peaceful place
by Jan Thomson, St. Arnaud, Nelson Lakes, New Zealand
I enjoy painting in the beautiful Nelson Lakes National Park — right beside our home. Tourists and visitors are almost always interested and complimentary about what I’m doing. Interesting, because visitors who call in at my studio just up the road often want to either talk about their own painting, or their Aunt who does wonderful pet portraits. When I recently went painting in Auckland (our biggest city), I was perched in a bus stop sketching a lovely old building while crowds clambered around and over me. Not one person stopped to check out what I was doing or even make eye contact. I guess it’s much easier to be anonymous in a crowd. I think I prefer painting here in my peaceful place and enjoying sharing it with others who are seeing what I’m seeing.
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‘Roving Art Critics’
by Charlene Brown, Victoria, BC, Canada
My book, Plein air Painting: the drama was originally titled, Painting in Public, and the first chapter is pretty much devoted to ways of avoiding interactions with passers-by, whom I refer to as Roving Art Critics. Didn’t know about the big hat theory when I wrote it, but I came up with various other dodges, until I realized it was possible to enjoy and even benefit from ‘the drama’ of it all! The Bugaboo grizzlies we didn’t actually see last year are among the passers-by that get a mention in the book but almost all of the others are human.
They are just passing by
by Philippa Robert, Adelaide, Australia
For the women who feel intimidated about painting in public… Quite a few passersby will stop but most have their own experience or viewpoint at the forefront. Let that flow (you can keep on working and smiling). If they make a negative judgement, that’s okay. If they make a positive one, that’s okay, too. Neither judgement comes from a place that should worry you! After all, they are passing and you are staying. Once you are in the zone, making decisions about tone, colour, shape and so on, they won’t matter. You can ignore them because you are at work. The most provoking comments I have relate to how relaxing it must be to paint. My response is either “yes” or “well, it is actually very demanding” depending on how I feel. We are all learning, with every painting. Don’t worry that someone might see a work in progress — that’s just what it is! You dictate the terms. You are making the effort, taking the ‘risk.’ They are just passing by!
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Feedback, selling makes sense of it all
by Jose DeLaRosa, Fairport, NY, USA
I participate in several outdoor art festivals every year and I make a point to paint at all of them. I painted at a festival several years ago and my sales skyrocketed, and ever since I won’t go to a festival unless they allow me to paint. I like the feedback from patrons, and I believe it helps me guide my work toward the buying public. Love to paint but need to sell to make everything make sense.
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How to really put them off
by Tom Auld, Kent, OH, USA
Several years ago, an old friend and I visited a small Gulf-side park outside Springhill, Florida for an afternoon of plein air painting. When we arrived, the parking area was nearly full and I feared the worst, a constant stream of sidewalk critics. Another painter had already set up her gear and was deep in the process. I noticed the passersby seemed to give her wide berth. The stenciled message in large red letters on the back of her smock couldn’t have been clearer:
“YES, I’M PAINTING. NO, I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT.”
“Great smock,” I said as we passed. I got a quick smile and a wink and back she went to her canvas.
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by Michael Epp, Vancouver, BC, Canada
My ‘most unforgettable’ plein air anecdote as recorded by Gauguin — his remarks also provide us with a valuable and illuminating sense of the interplay of colours in Cezanne’s painting. The painting referenced is Zola’s House at Medan (Le Chateau de Medan):
“Cezanne is painting a shimmering landscape against an ultramarine background, with intense shades of green and ochre gleaming like silk. The trees are stood in a row like tin soldiers, and through the tangle of branches you can make out his friend Zola’s house. Thanks to the yellow reflections on the whitewashed walls, the vermilion window shutters take on an orange tone. A crisp Veronese green conveys the sumptuous leafage in the garden, and the sober, contrasting shade of bluish nettles in the foreground renders the simple poem even more sonorous.
“A presumptuous passer-by takes a shocked glance at what seems, in his eyes, to be a dilettante’s wretched daubing, and asks Cezanne in a professorial voice, with a smile,
‘Trying your hand at painting?’
‘Yes but I’m no expert!’
‘I can see that. Look here, I was once a pupil of Corot. If you don’t mind, I’ll just add a few well-placed strokes and set the whole thing right. What count are the valeurs, and the valeurs alone.’
“And sure enough, the vandal adds a few strokes of paint to the shimmering picture, utterly unabashed. The oriental silk of this symphony of colour is smothered in dirty greys. Cezanne exclaims: ‘Monsieur, you have an enviable talent. No doubt when you paint a portrait you put shiny highlights on the tip of the nose just as you would on the bars of a chair.’
“Cezanne picks up his palette once more and scratches off the mess he has made. Silence reigns for a moment. Then Cezanne lets fly a tremendous fart, and, gazing evenly at the man, declares: ‘That’s better.’ ”
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Loves a crowd
by Alana Dill, Alameda, CA, USA
I’m a face painter and body artist, so by definition, I almost always paint in public. I spent many years thinking I was supposed to create in splendid isolation – many years blocked! Face painting frees me up to paint spur of the moment, and it gives the arty part of my brain the freedom to wiggle around and come up with new ideas. It’s almost as good as taking a shower!
Face painting may be dismissed by some folks as a ‘craft’ rather than fine art, but I don’t worry about that much. If I sat them down and got them familiar with the challenges of painting on a canvas that sometimes wiggles, giggles, moves, sweats, or sneezes, in uncontrolled situations such as heat, cold, or wind… they’d quickly understand that it’s a real challenge. To create a good face- or body-painting, one must understand the qualities of the paint (which are different from color to color and brand to brand), the structure of the face or body, and a little about the human soul underneath it. There is a graphic-art aspect, since one is painting to another’s order; one could also consider it a sort of visual haiku:
The face awaits paint
butterfly, monster, hero
reveal what’s inside
Some face painters dislike all the questions that come with the job, but I love them. “Are you a real artist?” is my favorite. I like to reply: “I’ve been an artist all my life, and this is my favorite medium now. What kind of art do you like to do?” Sometimes they get a sad, dreamy look – “oh, I’m no artist…”, and I always encourage them to keep trying until they find an art they love doing.
Oftentimes there’ll be one person in line who just wants to watch, and I talk with them about process and technique – the cosmetic paints I use, how I hold the brush for different strokes, etc. They often choose to go last, if at all. If they do trust me to paint them (and 95% of the time they do!) they have chosen their design carefully, and I customize it to their specs. It’s a joyful collaboration.
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, 2013.
That includes Jerry Rosenfeld who wrote, “My favorite, ‘My kid can paint better than that,’ doesn’t bother me. A bother was when a dog critted my work — I paint sitting on the ground. On the other hand, I’ve sold often from the easel.”
And also Gary Gibbens of New Zealand, who wrote, “A local painter pretends to be deaf when people approach and annoy him with inane remarks. He just points to his ears and carries on painting while ignoring them. He does get to hear some strange comments by doing this.
And also Barrett Edwards of Naples, FL, USA, who wrote, “Plein air painting is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards (and even the back-handed ‘compliments’) are unforgettable.”
And also Richard Gagnon of Knowlton, QC, Canada, who wrote, “I acquired a Panama hat in Florida a couple of years ago. Do you think it would be big enough?”
(RG note) Thanks, Richard. I found my own Panama hat to be so sufficiently intimidating to others that I quickly bought another when I stupidly left it in a bar in Patagonia. I’m currently wearing an Australian “Akubra” that also does the trick.
Enjoy the past comments below for Painting in public…