Recently, Jil Ashton-Leigh of Steveston, BC, Canada told me about a wise Chinese art instructor who looked at her painting of the Fraser River and said, “Your mind–it is too fast.” He told her to sit by the river for 30 minutes each day–no camera, no cellphone. “When you ‘observe’ the river then you will come to ‘know’ it,” he said. If you’re interested, you can read Jil’s full letter “The Art of Patience” at the bottom of the responses below.
Thanks, Jil. I first noticed my own problem about 20 years ago. I was losing patience with any outdoor painting I started. I was jumping up and running around with my camera looking like an advanced case of St. Vitus’ dance. It wasn’t the coffee.
It was something more serious. In my love affair with technology, I had mistaken my camera for a life. In my compulsion to grab every image, I lost sight of places I could pleasantly inhabit. I had become a mere collector without actually observing the things I was collecting, and I was feeling bad about myself.
Further, I realized I was living in a world that was “putting in a nickel and trying to get a dollar tune.” I took the advice of the great American art educator and author of The Art Spirit, Robert Henri. He warned of the potential problems of too much camera, too little time. To build observational skills when painting from a live model, he frequently placed his students and their easels in one room and the model in another. “There is no art without contemplation,” he told his students as they trudged back and forth.
One fine day I had my “hour of decision.” Just as a child eventually deserts its soother, I suddenly didn’t need my camera any more.
Brothers and sisters, if you’ve been troubled, or if you’ve been teetering on the edge, both Jil and I need you to convert. Glad tidings are in the grace of patience. “All things come to he who waits,” wrote the poet Violet Fane in 1890. Sit still. Look around. Be one with nature. Inhale life. Observe the nuances. Come sit by the river.
PS: “Patience has to be cultivated. Perhaps the entire creative process can be viewed as a patience builder.” (Jil Ashton-Leigh)
Esoterica: Several years ago I was visiting William Wordsworth’s cottage near Grasmere in the English Lake District. Alone, I followed his trails out behind and above his property and into the shining dales. Passing slowly by nodding daffodils and under scudding clouds, I suddenly got it. No wonder Wordsworth was such a great poet! He took the time to think, to wonder, to contemplate. While predating the phone and the instant camera, he nevertheless had a warning:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” (William Wordsworth, 1770-1850)
Patience can be learned
by Richard Mason, Howell, NJ, USA
Great advice. We think we see but most of us don’t. Patience is the virtue we need to make our work shine… Difficult when we are accustomed to the world we inhabit but it can be learned…
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Meditation can steady the mind and brush
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
I am working on my fourth model, third pose and second background of a work I conceived two years ago. It is a large life-sized nude painted from life.
I am a firm believer of some form of meditation before painting. Challenging and difficult work makes us tense and if we have the presence of mind — some call it mind-fullness, remembered from those quiet moments, we can steady the mind and brush.
I have worked from both photographs and life, and I would like to share just how special it is having a living, breathing human being in front of you. It takes intense concentration – each minute shift of the model or the light brings new revelations. There are colors you never thought to use – reflections from the background or catching an errant beam of light. Each patch of color on a face has its own value and hue, much more subtle and richer on a live model. It takes time and patience to mix all those separate tones. Painting a face is not like painting an orange, adding white for the lights, dark brown or black for the shadows, then a tint of pink for the lips or cheeks. Euan Uglow, the famous British figurative artist, only managed maybe two paintings at best a year. I cannot imagine how long it takes Jacob Collins to paint his beautiful nudes.
There are aggravations — the model is sick, late, whatever. You have to wait, again, but this is dispelled once the model returns and the light falls on your subject and you pick up your brush. It is magic.
Three canons of photography
by Douglas Greetham, Falmouth, MA, USA
My wife is the painter, while I was (still am) the photographer, although she has since converted me to painter as well. Years ago, we would often spend a day out, mostly along the coast of Maine, she would paint and I would photograph with my flat bed 4×5 field camera. Almost invariably the “keeper” would be the last image captured. Sometimes it took a return visit to really capture what I finally managed to see.
Over the years I have come to truly believe in Minor Whites three canons of photography, which can easily be applied to painting as well.
— “Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence”
— “Let the subject generate its own composition”
— “When the image mirrors the man and the man mirrors the image something might take over”
Be intimate with your subject
by Janet Summers-Tembeli, Samos, Greece
The observation of subject material is an act of patience and devotion. When you become intimate with the landscape, feel it, smell it, see the shadows move, the colors change, it’s every nuance comes to life. I find it very hard, if not impossible, to work from photos. They lack the 3rd dimension, the movement, the spark of life. When I have observed, done some sketches, found the best time of day, then the landscape flows through my hands, my brushes bring to life the landscape with confidence and my colors sing. There is no substitute for knowing your subject. It requires patience and love. This is what the artist’s life is about, after all.
Work from life before using photo reference
by Mackenzie Swenson, St. Paul, MN, USA
I’m a third year art student at a place called “The Atelier” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We are never allowed to use photographs for our work (although many people use them as references when they get out of school) and some of the paintings we do take over 90 hours of direct observation of the model or subject.
I’m going to take a minute to explain something lots of people ask about—working from photos. Advanced students are occasionally allowed to use a photo for reference, but we are encouraged to spend our time as students working completely from life. This means that everything we paint or draw is actually set up in front of us, whether it’s a cast, a still life, or a person. This doesn’t mean photo references are intrinsically bad, but the reality is that photos have limitations. After spending our student years painting from life, using a photograph in a project won’t mean blindly copying. Instead, we can look at the content of the photo and somewhat understand what it would’ve looked like if we had actually been there.
We see the world as unique individuals. Our genetic makeup, collection of experiences, and a million other things influence how we see life. When looking at objects set up for a still life, one person might be drawn to the sweep of the flowers while someone else is caught by the gleam of the vase. Even if it’s subtle, how we uniquely see the subject shows in how we paint it. Using a photo means that the 3-dimensional world is translated to a 2-dimensional surface for you. In doing this, we lose the chance to capitalize on our individual way of seeing. One of Sargent’s teachers, Henry James, described art as, “A point of view, and a genius way of looking at things.” If this has any merit, something of the artistry is lost when we create art based on a photograph’s perception of reality.
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by Jan Heaton, Austin, TX, USA
I am currently working on a series titled quiet. Patience is a must for my process! During the past year I have been researching how color in our surrounding environments — particularly nature — influences our personal health and well being. After reading the book, Healing Spaces, that explores how our immediate environment affects our senses, emotions and immune systems, I began to paint what brought me peace. With an emphasis on repetitive, quiet patterns of movement found in nature, I focused on line, color, and form.
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by Kathleen Corrigan, Golden Valley, MN, USA
What timing! I have been painting a series based on photos I took from the car window as my sister drove my parents and me through the Irish countryside in March. I often paint from photos. The time to sit in a landscape is a precious necessity. When traveling through a country with a pack of people, however, personal space as well as personal time is often compromised so I had to satisfy myself with stealing quick snapshots as we buzzed through Connemara, the Burrens, and the Dingle Peninsula. What is wonderful about these quick, often serendipitous shots is that I can project myself back into that place though I only caught the barest glimpse at the time. The narrowness of those roads, with the shoulders of the stone walls forging alongside and the bristly green purple barked trees closing in overhead caught at my imagination. Painting from these photos allows me to look more closely at that place now.
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Building a visual library
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
Several years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Rocky Mountains on two separate trips within two years. The first trip was with 3 of my artist friends for the National Sculpture Convention in Loveland, Colorado. We didn’t have much free time, but we were able to do a few day trips and one overnight trip into the mountains. Every place we stopped we would all jump out of the car and shoot tons of photos. The next trip was with my family. Since I already had a lot of reference photos of the mountains, I wasn’t as camera crazy, even though I did take some photos. The difference between the two trips was the amount of time I spent just sitting and soaking in the views, versus stopping and taking photos. When I got home from the second trip I was surprised how those images of the mountains were literally embedded into my mind’ eye, so to speak. To this day, I will have images of nature pop into my mind as I am painting. Ron Monsma calls those images in an artist’s mind, their “visual library.” Every time we sit and just observe nature, people or life… we are building that visual library.
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Become familiar with the scene
by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
Patience in observation is necessary to not only reproduce what we see but it goes far deeper than that. One cannot take in details in a quick glance regardless if you go home with a fine digital photo for reference. You must experience a place long enough to become familiar with it.
A river is a living breathing entity as much as people or animals. I like to sit at a river to take in its pulse, the current. The sleepy Blanco River will sometimes swell with temper as rainwater rushes down from the hills and the low places are lost in a flash flood, in minutes. No river (or scene) is static; it changes from season to season, from one month to the next. How can we know that without the patience to study it?
Impatience tends to bless and curse the young. Life can be tackled at breakneck speed but the good news is we grow out of that. As we age we tend to savor our experiences. Impatience might be a positive attribute for some vocations but not art.
No glass necessary
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
I want to share with you my experience and ideas about watercolor. A few years ago, in a workshop by Bob Burridge, he suggested that Golden Acrylic Spray Varnish could be used on watercolors and then glass would not be necessary. I was thrilled, tried it and never went back to glass. Since then, I have another method that I almost prefer, but still use the spray sometimes. The product is Dorland’s Wax. It is archival and gives a richness that the spray does not. I do not know if it is lightfast or not. I agree with the person’s comment that watercolors should be hung where direct sunlight does not hit them. I bought a very big container of it from Cheap Joe’s when they had it on sale. Small containers are available at Dick Blick.
Before, glass on my paintings allowed you mostly to see the reflection of the trees outside. Now the paintings are clearly seen. None seem to have lost any of their color and they are 3 years old or older.
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The Art of Patience by Jil Ashton-Leigh
In our fast paced society, where instant gratification is the norm, have we become too impatient? How can we be more mindful? How do we cultivate patience?
One of the first artists I studied with was a wise man, who had spent a lifetime learning his craft in China. He took one look at my fledgling attempt to hurriedly paint the Fraser River and said, “Your mind …it is too fast. Slow your thinking. You believe you know this river? You do not know. Your homework is to go to the river and observe. You must watch the river each day for 30 minutes. No photos, no cell phones. When you observe the river then you will come to know it.” On the first day, I quickly headed down to the river to watch. Before I knew it, my mind started to wander and I reached for my cell phone. Perhaps I should take a few photos, to help me remember the river, I thought to myself. My total observation time had lasted 5 minutes. The next day, it was raining and I stood on the dock as the muddy river swirled past me. Surely, he wasn’t expecting me to stand here and get wet I thought to myself. This time, I had made it 7 minutes. By the end of the week, I worked my way up to a grand total of 15 minutes. While this was an improvement, it still fell short of the required time.
The following Saturday, I unpacked my art gear, and quickly started on my painting of the Fraser River. The instructor watched me then quietly asked, “You completed the homework assignment?” “Of course,” I replied confidently as I continued to paint. He looked at me then asked, “Thirty minutes each day?” I nodded and continued to paint but the look on his face told me he knew I hadn’t the patience to complete his homework. “If you want to be a good artist, first you must have patience,” he said.
Three years later, I am beginning to understand that patience has to be cultivated. Perhaps, the entire creative process can be viewed as a patience builder. My current instructor routinely tells me, “Art cannot exist without patience. Less painting. More thinking.” In other words, slow down and live in the moment, take the time to reflect on what you have done and where you are headed. St. Augustine once wrote, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.” I am just now realizing that these are words of wisdom for artists as well.
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 Polonca Kocjancic of Slovenia who wrote, “From time to time I found myself in a beautiful area or spot ‘unprepared,’ without a camera. But then I developed the following attitude: ‘If I don’t have a camera, I will take this photo with my heart.’ I just sit and enjoy for some time. I am convinced that this attitude has given my life more quality.”
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Port Moody, BC, Canada who wrote, “To be fair to all the busy bees out there struggling with many responsibilities, I don’t think that lack of patience is the same as lack of time to do things properly. I am often pressed into running into nature to just take photos, but always bitterly aware what I am missing – so I make sure to plan for those priceless pockets of time when art can be born from patience and dedication.”
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