Monday, August 30, 2010

And Then There Were Clouds

Trio of Clouds, c Sukie Curtis, 2010, 5x5 each, oil on wood

What can I say but that I love clouds? Unapologetically. 

After all, I am a certified member of the Cloud Appreciation Society. And I find clouds endlessly fascinating and entertaining in their variations of form, color, density, changeability. 

Sometimes I wish I could hold them from shifting shapes quite so fast, and yet that's part of the nature of clouds to be always changing, fleeting, transitory, impermanent, ephemeral. And thus, fun to watch!

(Did you know that word "ephemeral" is built of two Greek words--the preposition epi meaning "on" or "at," and the word (h)emera meaning "day"? So ephemeral means on a day, or fleeting, etc. That was one of my brightest, most exciting "aha" discoveries taking New Testament Greek in seminary thirty (gulp!) years ago.)

A few weeks ago on a random morning, I happened to look at the sky over our neighbors' house across the street and saw some great cloud formations, and I decided to paint them as quickly as I could. Fortunately I had three small (5x5") wood panels all primed and undercoated with a rosy tone, so I brought my paint, my brushes, solvent, and the three panels out to the small stoop in front of one of our doors. Spread some newspaper on the porch beside me, just in case, donned my apron and went to work. 

Quick work. You have to work very quickly if you're trying at all to paint what's before your eyes when it comes to clouds (or nearly any other weather-related or sunlight-related phenomenon in a place like Maine). 

Of course there comes a time when you are no longer painting the cloud itself, which has morphed through several new stages in the time it has taken you to mix a color of paint. But some concoction of the actual cloud as it was, the way it remains in your memory and imagination, and the actual cloud as it is now and is fast becoming (I will resist saying--well, apparently not!--"as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be..."--what a preposterous idea of changlessness and immutability.)

But I don't set out to paint exact likenesses when I paint anyway. If I were after that, I'd take a photograph, and even with photography there's lots of choosing going on to make up a photo--a kind of editing of subject even before the photo gets taken.

As a more experienced painter once said to me, "All paintings, no matter how representational they aim to be, are abstractions." Fictions, we might say.

Especially so if the painter in question is as much interested in her/his own response to what is seen and to the amazement, delight, elation (or, legitimately, sadness, longing, poignance) stirred up in the one seeing. 

Which reminds me of something I've read attributed to Alexander Calder: "My method of working? I begin with elation." To which I say, count me in.

PS. I had intended to sell the three cloud pieces as a trio, but I have since sold one (the one on the right) to someone who admired that one. The others are still available. And I plan to do more.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Day after: how it turned out

"East End Rocks, Shadows, Seaweed, " c Sukie Curtis, 2010, 10x10, oil on canvas

When I finally got outside that day (which is now many days ago, four whole weeks ago, July 25, to be exact), I loaded up my car and drove around a little, trying some of my former outdoor painting haunts to see how things looked--tide, sky, clouds, etc. 

I didn't want to waste a lot of time driving around (and I could see that it might help to decide where you're going to go the night before, and just deal with whatever conditions are there), so I ended up near the boat ramp at the East End of Portland, looking northeast toward Falmouth and Cumberland and the islands of Casco Bay that lie in that direction--Mackworth, with its causeway, then some smaller ones I don't know the names of, then Clapboard and Sturdivant.

It was around 8 am, if I remember right; the sun was well up in the sky, there weren't many clouds. The sky was a pale milky blue, nearly cloudless, and there was no wind to speak of. In other words, the sky and the water were . . . boring. No variations, no fun clouds to capture, no wind ripples or stretches of rough water.  I honestly didn't want to paint what was in front of me--at least not until I noticed what was really right in front of me.

The shadows among the tumble of rocks and boulders along the shore, and near the water's edge, splotches of exposed seaweed. 

Remember, this was the first time I had painted outside in over a year, so I was feeling a little bit timid. I wanted to enjoy myself, and I really didn't want to end up frustrated and disappointed with my painting experience. I didn't even get out my easel for starters, but instead found a flat expanse of rock on which to sit, with my paint box beside me on the rock, my bag of paint, brushes, and assorted equipment on the ground by my feet. I put on my well-used apron and held a prepared canvas in my lap. 

"Keep it simple," I might have coached myself. "Just start somewhere." I had a feeling that once I got started mixing colors, or something, anything, I'd be OK. I just had to get started.

It was the deep, velvety shadows in the rocks that held my attention the most, so I started mixing colors for those, not really trying to be visually accurate, but to enjoy the process and see where it would lead. The painting up above is where it led. I worked for over an hour, I think, though I really don't remember the details any more. I worked until I felt I was finished, was satisfied with what I had done, was hungry and ready to get out of the sun. 

When I got home, happy to have broken through the mixture of fear, self-doubt, and inertia that had kept me from painting outside for a year, I put my painting up on my wall to dry and rather quickly decided I'd like to paint a variation based on it, to change the composition a little bit and just play around. 

Which I did a day or two later. Which produced the following:

Rocks, Shadows, Seaweed Variation, c Sukie Curtis, 2010, 10x10, oil on canvas

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Day after Stopping by Fields to Draw, part 1

It is now a little over a week since the day I wrote "Stopping by Fields on a Sunny Morning," and I've been meaning to write what happened next. That is, what happened the next morning.

Inspired and energized by sitting in the sunny field drawing two very quick sketches (that really don't even look like much), I was determined to go out the next morning to paint. Honestly, I'd been thinking of doing this for several days if not weeks, but just hadn't really pulled myself together to do it. Partly, I am guessing and confessing, because of a subtle undertow that had kept me from painting outdoors since the fall of 2008--something that might sound silly and insignificant, except for the fact that it really did keep me (or became an excuse I used to keep me) from doing something that I had really loved doing from April to October of that year.

I am almost embarrassed to admit this--and only do so because perhaps my being honest will help someone else not to get so stuck or caught in a similar way--but I put the brakes on painting outdoors largely because I had had the brilliant idea of showing my outdoor paintings to a noted landscape painter whose work I admired, and he wasn't exactly highly complimentary. He did say some positive things about my sense of color, eventually, after having spent quite a bit of time critiquing (or was it criticizing?) my totally favorite painting, the one dearest to my heart that I dared to put out there first, and then showing me images on his laptop of famous artists' work to illustrate what he was trying to say. I really couldn't hear anything positive after the not so good stuff he had said up front.

And did I mention that I paid, and paid good money, for this privilege? Oh well. (I had recognized, and David had asked me about, the potential for investing too much authority in this guy, not trusting my own felt sense of delight and vitality and passion for painting as guide enough for my work at that time. What did I expect of myself, anyway? I had squeezed oil paint from a tube for the first time in my life only eight months before! )

Because it was November, when the weather in Maine is rather cold for painting outdoors, I probably would have taken a winter break anyway. At least that was my "cover" for the month going on two, even three months, in which I refrained not only from painting outside but even from painting at all, other than showing up for the last few sessions of a class I was taking at the time. After which I cleaned up my brushes and shut down, not with any sort of conscious decision to stop (how could I possibly have explained that?). I just stopped painting and told myself, if I told myself anything at all, that I was taking a break.

Perhaps this didn't sound so strange, especially given that there were Thanksgiving and Christmas to attend to, and one thing and another, and soon January became February. But given that the undeniable high water mark of the previous seven months had been my falling in love with oil paint and my subsequent steady yet passionate devotion to painting outdoors, simply to stop really was rather odd and highly questionable behavior. An outsider looking in might easily have smelled a rat; I was a little too close to the matter to observe or think about it with clear eyes.

All of which is to say that it was no small matter that stopping by fields on a sunny morning finally provided sufficient fuel to get me outside to paint the next morning. And in the process of getting ready to head out, I remembered just how much work it really takes to do just that: all the steps and pieces that are essential to being able to paint somewhere (paints, solvent, brushes, a surface to paint on, rags, a palette knife), plus others that might not be essential but assist greatly, like an easel, a hat, sunscreen, bug stuff, water, a snack, and a car. And then there's deciding where to go to paint and hoping that the conditions are interesting enough to get your creative juices flowing.

So before I even left the house, I was marveling that I had done this very thing so many times two summers ago (many times I simply painted what I could see in my own back yard, or in our neighborhood). And I was appreciating all the devoted outdoor ("plein air") painters I know who do this on a regular basis. It is no small commitment.