Blue Chair, 9 x 12 oil on linen
How often have you gone out painting on location, only to be discouraged by the perceived difficulty of task at hand?
If you are like most painters, you can relate to this; You get in your car to go painting, may be on a whim one beautiful morning, or may be you have a scheduled paint out with a group, or may be even at a plein air painting competition... you drive around looking for a view, you see some interesting things, but nothing strikes you as quite right.
There's no parking, there's no shade, the angle's all wrong, too noisy, too warm, too cold, too windy... So you drive on. And on. Until you've lost the light and your enthusiasm. (Not to mention 200 miles worth of gas!) It seems like the views are worse than the unacceptable ones a few hours earlier. So you just decide to go home, unhappy and with a list of excuses.
Or, you force yourself to set up at the next less-than-ideal spot, determined to get a painting done. But you are not "feelin' it" anymore. You half-heartedly block in the shapes, but you know it's gonna be a crappy painting because your heart is not in it. And of course you have a scraper, as you knew you would.
Or, you're painting in a plein air competition, and you're feeling the pressure to perform. You've somehow set the bar really high because you just can't do crappy paintings and be showing them next to those amazing works by those fabulous artists – "I'll be humiliated," you say to yourself. "And everyone will remember me as the worst painter in the show. My career will be ruined before it's even off the ground!" . Oh the stress~!
So you tell yourself you can't paint something totally boring and stupid, and yet, if it's not that, the view looks way too difficult. Paralyzingly difficult.
Sound familiar? Relax, it's just a sketch!
Painting is difficult whether you're outdoors or not, but the added pressure to perform can be really stressful. I know. I've been there.
Nowadays, while I still find plein air painting difficult, and I still often paint a scraper for various reasons, I don't stress out about it as I used to. I've kind of gotten used to the fact that I just can't hit the ball every single time. Sometimes I strike out, and that's just a fact I've come to accept. And coming to that realization really took some weight off my shoulders.
Because, you know, the pressure to perform is all in my head. All the insecurities and excuses and bad attitudes just feed on one another and get amplified, taking all the joy out of painting. It just becomes a chore, or worse, it can really do a number on your confidence.
Roadside Painter, 6 x 8, oil on linen
So how do you break out of this ball of negativity and get a painting done, and enjoy it while you're at it?
One of the best ways, I've found, is to consider your task to be "just a sketch". Don't feel like you have to bang out a fully resolved, show-worthy painting, let alone a masterpiece. Just do a simple little sketch. You don't even have to finish it. It's just a name change from "a painting" to "a sketch", and how you actually go about it hasn't changed, but you'd be surprised how liberated it can make you feel.
Sure you can screw it up, but screwing up a little sketch doesn't hurt nearly as much as something on which you stake your reputation (or so you perceive). And guess what, it's not as easy to screw up a sketch. Did you know that? Chances are, you'll paint better than if you swung for the fences.
Second tip: This goes hand in hand with the first tip. Paint your sketch "center out". That is to say, pick a focal point. This should be an object, or just a small part of an object even. Paint that, resolve it as best you can, and then paint its immediate surroundings with a bigger brush. Just mix the colors carefully and paint them as color notes. Don't even worry that they don't look like "things". Abstraction is good. And then, go further out and use an even bigger brush and paint even more abstractly and expressively than what you just did. And again, you don't have to finish the painting. It's just a little sketch, remember?
The two paintings I'm posting today are examples of "just a sketch" mind set and "center out" process. Both subjects are unremarkable and ordinary, and as you can see, they are unfinished, but intentionally so.
Not only does "permission to not finish" takes a lot of pressure off, but pictorially, the finished area (the focal point which is more or less resolved) looks even more finished by contrast.
It turns out, this "center out" method works really well when you're faced with a complex view where you may feel intimidated by the amount of visual information you have to process, or where perspective and drawing just looks much more difficult than your skill level. I mean think about it; painting a street scene with cars and buildings all in perspective sounds kind of intimidating, but looking at the same view, but focusing on one tire or one fire hydrant doesn't sound so bad. The rest of the view will still be included, but just not so defined. The big brushes won't allow you to paint tedious detail, you see.
It forces you to be unambiguous about your focal point, and it forces you to paint all the supporting cast with less detail and more expression. That's an effective combination even if you don't consider your task "just a sketch".
Tip number three: Once you've done one sketch, look around. You may find that you see paintable views everywhere where just a few hours ago you saw nothing. This is because you are now seeing with a painter's eye, and your brain is organizing the visual information in a more purposeful way. Get another painting going right away. If you wait, you may lose the painter's eye and you're back where you started. But that's OK, you've got the "it's just a sketch" strategy to fall back on, right?
Tip number four: Remember, great subject matter doesn't necessarily make a great painting. Or a good painting, even. Sure, it doesn't hurt to have the perfect view but chances of encountering such views are slim in many areas. On the other hand, the simplest, most ordinary and unimpressive subject matter can be turned into a charming little sketch that you'd be proud to hang even next to that award-winning painter. Just give it a chance.
So the next time you're getting all frustrated because you can't find the right view, or when you find yourself feeling the pressure to perform for fear of humiliation, just relax. it's just a sketch!
By the way, I have just one more spot left for my upcoming workshop - You can read about it here. If you're interested, don't wait to sign up!