For the last few days I’ve been painting on a particularly frigid balcony at Whistler, B.C., Canada. You may know that Whistler is the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The main currency around here is snow, and this year there’s lots of it — great clods of it fall from the trees as weight builds and more sifts down from leaden skies. It’s bitterly cold.
I like to paint outside; it’s part of the painting spirit. You might say it’s a creative ploy — more than just a matter of looking at things in the wild. It’s what I call “inhaling the environment,” and right now I feel like I’ve got “icicle-lung.”
Even while bundled up, I have to keep coming inside for a sip of coffee or something stronger. Sometimes I have to warm up with dreams before I can go back to my balcony. If you try this sort of thing at home, my guess is you’ll paint looser and fresher. Funnily, in sub-zero it’s easier to be hot, partly because you need to get on with it. Further, forced to come and go, another part of you makes you take your time. You size things up and try to decide what comes next. Actually, change of any sort refreshes and sharpens events. I don’t want to be maudlin, but the frequent-pause system can reboot life.
Working in acrylics, I bring incomplete work inside to the heater. I work on several paintings at a time. While the balcony view is ever changing, I also rerun images from cold sorties down snowbound lanes or from glimpses through a fogged windscreen on the way to groceries.
Right now there are no boisterous sports fans in Whistler. It’s a strangely quiet winter wonderland where even a foraging chickadee is a minor miracle.
In the evening, by the fireplace, as the snow continues silently outside, the accumulated work goes under the lights. It’s here that some paintings win you over and shout “Stop!” Others decay in front of you, becoming objects of disgust and reminding you of your chronic failings. Sleep finally arrives and you sink into that pervasive dream that you may live to once more repeat the process. Tomorrow will be another day.
Esoterica: Winter work is both inconvenient and miraculous. Mittens or gloves, no matter how well designed, are never quite as fine as fingers. In blown snow, the acrylic palette never dries. Taking boots on and off is a pain. The sense of holiday — away from the home studio — is at once energizing and challenging. The work can often seem more exciting. One marvels that a life can be built around such a low-tech workstation, however chilly. And unlike this travelling laptop on which I’m writing you, when it breaks down, I can fix it myself.
Seeing with fresh eyes
by Toni Williams
One of the first things I learned in formal training was to “clear the eyes.” I, too, must forcefully pull myself away from the easel. Sometimes, when my cheeks are burning with excitement from painting ( good or bad!), when I can hardly breathe, I make myself drop the brush immediately and stroll away or lean back and relax and definitely look away. It’s necessary for the rods and cones. Sometimes at frequent intervals if I’m not too caught up in the zone… We learn to be patient, whether we want to or not! We need to pace the flow of the paint. Fresh eyes are a necessary tool!
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Breaks may keep quality high
by Michele Rushworth, Seattle, WA, USA
I suppose I’ve been using the “frequent-pause system” for years (even though I have a nice cozy warm studio), but thinking it was laziness I was trying to stop it. Now, perhaps, I realize it’s been a way of refreshing my mind and body so I could keep the quality of work high. I typically paint for an hour or so and then leave the studio to go do something else for ten or fifteen minutes. Then I go back to the studio and paint again for an hour or maybe two. This means fewer hours actually at the easel than if I was to stand or sit there steadily all day, but maybe the enjoyment and the quality would wane. If I worked steadily I might find I had actually produced less good work in a day than I do by taking all these breaks.
Outdoor painting tips
by Helen Opie, Granville Ferry, NS, Canada
I started painting outdoors in the ’60s, maybe late ’50s. I find that if I paint standing up, then I am using my whole arm and can paint with lined gloves or even mitts, which my fingers’ poor circulation requires. (My best painting gloves are rabbit-fur lined which I got at the SalvationArmy; I bless whoever got rid of them.) Sitting requires small-muscle control of the brush and then one’s fingers do need to be exposed. I find sitting gives too much cold-loss as the insulating air in my clothing is too compressed across my seat and back to protect me well. Although I can be cozy sitting if I can offset this heat loss by sitting on a reflective blanket — those emergency or ‘space’ blankets — but these still need help from added padding (a windproof cushion) to slow down convection as well as radiation…just like keeping the heat in a house. Stop heat loss through air movement (that’s what insulation does) as well as radiation (what night curtains on windows do). Standing also takes a little more energy and keeps blood circulating a little better. You are likely to step back to view your work more frequently if you are already standing and that helps your circulation as well as your painting. Also, standing on a sheet of insulating paneling, such as Homosote brand board, or even wood paneling, gives one more of a barrier to losing heat from your feet.
Pausing by the clock
by George Perdue, Georgetown, ON, Canada
Every time I go out my painting takes on a new freshness and the colour sensitivity grows. We use a buddy system and that is key to our version of the frequent pause system. After stopping on an unpaved road we get out and survey the spot. As we set up we make a judgment as to how many minutes the day is — and we set the clock (cooking timer) to ring at that interval. When the clock goes off we get in the car for a warm up, talk, and a few laughs. Then it is out for round two. This is when the weakness of the system can rear its head. If (when) we forget to set the clock, we often freeze up before we are aware of it so the warm up interval grows appropriately.
In this picture Vic Sullivan demonstrates the bare hand approach — not recommended and not often practiced. Like you we get keepers, workers and skimmers.
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Snow pants inside and out
by Mary Lapos, Danville, PA, USA
At the risk of sending the price of this article beyond purchase, have to tell you Robert, you need snow pants. I live on a farm and there’s almost no heat… I have a small coal stove in the kitchen that heats my whole place (and me). It’s currently 6 degrees Fahrenheit outside my window on the world. The secret is… the snow pants keep you warm outside (unbelievably so) and you don’t overheat when you go inside. You keep them on all day: no time lost changing in/out, in/ out. My studio is cold (a small propane heater) but I can still paint all winter in 40 degree temperatures, a lot of times without gloves — the pants just keep your whole self warm. I get in them around November and I’m still in them come April. I have several pair. I wear them to town, to art openings and even sometimes to bed if it’s really cold. I will leave it to others to tip toe around, shivering and holding themselves, bent over at a 45 degree angle, blue lips and white hands. I traded off normal clothing years ago and I have never looked back. Get warm …. $29 – $69 and most thrift shops sell used ones.
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by Duane Dorshimer, Raleigh, NC, USA
I have read on several conservation websites that acrylics are not stable below freezing and can crack. Based on your Whistler experience your efforts seem to refute this concept. Any thoughts on the subject?
(RG note) Thanks Duane. You’re right, Acrylics and their media become granular and unusable if they happen to freeze. I bring the box inside every night. The palette is renewed each morning. A bucket of paint-water left overnight was suitable to skate over. I have the (bad?) habit of leaving brushes in water — nice collars were ringed around the handles. As mentioned in the letter, the paintings are soon brought inside to cure in normal temperatures. Oil painters are relieved of most of this fuss.
by Jim Camann
What kind of a rig did you use in the Whistler porch picture? I mean the easel and palette holder. The only item missing is the glass of wine. Love reading your stuff.
(RG note) Thanks, Jim. That “rig” is a homemade item that attaches to a folding chair. It folds up, goes into the back of a car, takes anything below a 14 x 18, and is remarkably difficult to get into and out of. You can see it in action in a video here. (YouTube video can be accessed from this clickback which includes description and stills).
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA
Some of us aren’t comfortable with uncertainty. We like the familiarity of routine and sameness. There is great value in tradition, in making memories in the same places, in a trusted palette. We walk sure-footed and with confidence. We become teachers of our knowledge, sure of our path. We have answers to questions. We shuck and jive with experts, like ourselves.
There is equal value in falling flat on one’s face. The pitfall of complete comfort is the pathway to death. There is no more growth, no more learning. Our minds become lazy, our spirits practice apathy and when change comes (and it will come) we are devastated.
We can choose to hide or blame someone or make some sort of decree of gloom and doom for the world at large, OR we can remove any shame or embarrassment, stand up and laugh. “I’m all right. I’m all right,” we can tell those concerned for us. “I need to take another look at this,” we can assure them. At the moment we make the choice to help ourselves, we also restore dignity and prove how intelligent and resourceful we are to those who are looking. Best of all, we take one Giant Step (Mother may I?) forward. I haven’t always felt this way about inconvenience and “setbacks.” I have blamed and shouted to the heavens, “Why ME?!!!” Frustration became so overpowering, I have destroyed things around me. Most damaging is Irritation. It lives under the skin, shallow and petty, and its host doesn’t see how degrading Irritation can be. The difference between capitalizing on inconvenience and being destroyed by it is perspective and choice. We can practice seeing more than the initial picture. We can take the time to imagine how we can benefit. We can turn the puzzle piece a different way to fit this new picture.
I can only speak for myself when I say that EVERY time inconvenience has happened, when I allowed it, something better was created!
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The Power of Full Engagement
by Lea Gracer
Management of energy rather than time is one of the concepts in the popular book The Power of Full Engagement. They studied how the very best athletes managed their energies. Even between swings, they had mini rests… staring at their racquet strings, etc. They didn’t try to be “ON” all the time. Scheduling restorative rituals through the day helps to keep people’s minds sharp.
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Interaction with nature
by Mark A. Brennan, Whitehill, NS, Canada
It’s about 7:30 a.m. here in northern Nova Scotia and a cool -19 degrees Celsius outside. Warm in my studio, I look out towards the East and watch the sunrise, it changes in fleeting moments from deep red to orange and finally to yellow intertwined with warm winter greys. I cherish these mornings, it seems that everywhere outside becomes wilderness and no matter where I venture into the woods when there is a deep blanket of snow down, there is never a soul to be seen. Then there is the silence, a quiet so profound your ears whine, not used to the stillness that seems so natural in the forest at this time of year, with perhaps the exception of the sharp crack of a tree giving way to the frost as it splits another frozen trunk.
In about an hour a film maker will be arriving to venture with me into the deep woods of Whitehill. I have perhaps 2 miles of snow shoeing trails winding through the Acadian hardwood forest, now buried under almost a meter of the white stuff. Stuart is from England and this will be his first foray into such a place on snow shoes carrying a $12,000 camera! We are nearing the end of filming a documentary he is calling, “Painting The Wilderness.” A film that has taken us from one end of Eastern Canada to the other. Today though will be the real test. On days so cold it is virtually impossible to paint on location, I prefer to sketch with my camera, picking out areas of interest, looking, seeing, feeling and just being in the woods this time of year. It is as important to my work as the discipline of sitting at the easel every day. Without this constant interaction with nature my artist’s soul withers. It won’t be long though, perhaps just eight weeks, and I will once again be outside working on location next to breaking up rivers, hearing the wild chorus of spring. Stuart is arriving now, the light is wonderful, warm and wintery, soft shadows, and every branch on every tree carries its weight in great white cotton balls.. perfect!
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Building on desire
by Susanne Kelley Clark, Dallas, TX, USA
My most exciting balcony painting came when I attempted to paint a storm coming through Mesa Verde. I knew my time was short. I hustled not in and out but to get hold of anything that would suggest the awesome power and immensity of the blue-black clouds rolling toward me. I was forced inside by incredible wind and then torrential rain. I did not finish that one, but I still have it because I love the energy of it. I could never go back into it without ruining that energy. Later, with greater skill my memory could have helped me with it and trust that my training would show up and confidently recall that energy and speed. Those of us who tend to paint slowly and methodically, do a better job when forced to increase our speed and focus on the matter at hand. There is no time for second guessing and self-consciousness. We move to the “auto-pilot” part of our brain where our skill takes over and gets the job done. I think we do a better job when we are forced to function this way. Design work, drawing and planning prior to the painting experience itself is what we do in our sketchbooks daily. Working this way is no guarantee of success, but it certainly is exciting trying.
Living here we don’t get a lot of snow. I would love to try it sometime. I know that oil paint becomes pretty thick and does not behave very well when snow flakes land on it. When studying with Neil Welliver, he said he painted outdoors in Maine in the winter. He said if it was snowing, he would cover himself and his easel with plastic sheeting and cut a hole to paint through, so the snow would not hit the palette, the canvas or him and it could slightly warm the air inside the “tent.” He must have had great boots and maybe those little warming packets that skiers use. Georgia O’Keeffe would bring a few rugs to stand on in chilly weather.
I guess what it all boils down to in the end is how badly do we want this… what are we willing to do to make the paintings?
Work speaks gently
by Kelly Walker, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I read your letters and remain thankful. One must stay with their work and write as you do, beckoning onwards with flags of hope and stories, with concerns and with love. In the end the results are of show case pieces that stimulate the mind into freedom. Meanwhile, back at the farm (I hear it used to be one until they put up the town houses) I am surrounded by the only living complex that has trees and lots of them. I shovel snow, cook, clean and mother… dismiss those who find no means for their time and I paint. There are those moments that I so enjoy, when I peer into the work of my labor and hear it speak gently to me saying, “This is a good way.”
I have to be better, I have to be the best, I have to find what’s missing; it’s my mission in life and possibly one day I’ll have the good fortune of life’s longing for itself to be found. Not every stroke is genius, that’s why they call it life, and I’m living mine. A quote from the bible, something along the lines of “When a man is fully taught from his teacher, he is not greater than his teacher, he is like his teacher.” I like that. I remain thoughtful of your letters and of snowflakes, water that clings and puddles that can be splashed by the surprise of a child.
acrylic painting, 16 x 24 inches
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 Sam Grisham of Jonesboro, GA, USA, who wrote, “I love these letters from Robert Genn and look forward to each and every one of them. Every letter has been meaningful and helpful in some way. This is one of the highlights of my week. Very engaging. Such a poet’s heart! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
And also Corrine Bongiovanni of Windham, ME, USA, who wrote, “I love your twice-weekly letters. I feel compelled to read them. They invariably bring an experience of a MOMENT into my life, just the smallest of experiences or contemplations, yet it will stay with me all day. Like this most recent letter on many pauses while you paint plein air. I am fascinated with how you grab onto the smallest of experiences or thoughts and expand them into something larger and interesting. Perhaps it’s your writing style or the simplicity of it all? I don’t know. I have just reached the point where I don’t want to miss the latest nugget. Thanks for your ability to do this.”
And also Steve Drake of St Catharines, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Your comment, ‘becoming objects of disgust and reminding you of your chronic failings’ is a feeling that I am sure all artists experience. The secret is to learn from the failing and get up the next day ready to use your latest experience to become even better. Not all paintings are home runs!”
And also A J Meek who wrote, “After having viewed the photo of you painting outside in the winter I am relieved to know you are certifiably crazy.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The frequent-pause system…