Seeking Balance in Plein Air Painting

“Isn’t it intensity of thought rather than calmness of touch that we are seeking?  And in impulsive working conditions such as these, out on site and of this nature, is a calm, well-ordered touch always possible? Dear Lord, it seems to me no more so than when on the attack in fencing.” 

Vincent VanGogh in a letter to fell artist John Russell

VanGogh captures perfectly the essence of a struggle plein air painters face: balancing the heart and head in the battle to create art on the spot.  When you’re painting, how do you balance the impulsiveness driven by the excitement of the moment, with a deliberative approach that substitutes intuitive painting for thoughtful—and some would say “tight”–painting?  Or is this a false choice and do both?

Painting and studying with some of the best in our field inform my opinion.  Of those teachers, the great Ken Auster comes to mind.  In short, his approach was that you start with the head (deciding what to paint and why, designing the picture, drawing…), move to the heart (reacting, for creating the kind of expressive brush strokes and sophisticated grays he’s known for) and end with the head to thoughtfully consider the painting from an objective standpoint, and ask yourself, “is it done?” Judge it.

I agree with much of what Ken taught me about this question, but I have a slightly different although complementary take: Painting en plein air is possible through building a solid foundational of skills that make automatic as much of the process as possible in the moment.  

Have you ever commuted home from work, realizing when you got there you were on complete auto-pilot, barely remembering the drive?  That’s what building a skill means to me: having the most complete toolbox of artistic skills so that I can be intuitive and responsive to nature without thinking about it. I want to use my heart completely in a picture.  This is my goal, but I’m not quite there yet.  I’ve worked in the corporate world too many years to escape a structured, self-critical mind. 

But like Ken, I do start and end deliberatively. Perhaps this is my failing, or an essential truth to live with.

This is a painting of mine that represents for me this principle. I started with a careful design—especially large shapes, light and shadow—and switched to a complete intuitive state (athletes call it “the zone”). I skipped the evaluation, self-judgment phase until the next day.  I’m glad I did.  I like it just as it is.

China Cove, Oil on panel, 8x6"
“China Cove”, oil on board, 8×6″, Click for availability.

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