Hints 'n' Tips: Plein Air Painting
Learning to Paint: A Metaphor for Life
Learning to paint is similar in many ways to learning to ride a bike, drive a car or play a musical instrument. Assuming that a person has access to the right materials (in this case paints, brushes and canvas), the key factors in learning a skill are:
2) the skill's level of difficulty
3) the personís ability to absorb and implement new information
Out of the three, motivation is the most important. Without a desire to pursue a certain subject, no amount of ability is going to mean anything. Even a high level of difficulty is no match for a personís determination to learn if they want something badly enough. For that matter, access to art materials would scarcely be a hindrance either, because a determined person is a force to be reckoned with!
I remember a photography class I once had in a California community college. The instructor was very dedicated to his craft. Occasionally one of the students would complain about the cost of film or a particular piece of equipment. On one occasion the instructor made the comment that photography equipment was very costly, but a true photographer would somehow find a way to get it, no matter how difficult the burden. That was a thought that resonated with me and has been a catalyst for reflection since. His comment was really a metaphor for life. A person will pursue what they are motivated to accomplish in life; if they want to earn good grades in school, go to college, succeed in a marriage, own a boat, be a good person or even learn to paint, people with the right motivation will find a way.
I have often been asked by my students and interviewers what part talent plays in oneís ability to paint. I am reminded of the old saying that talent is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration; I believe that to be true. We have all seen examples of people in the news who had lots of ability, but proved to be utter failures because they wasted their lives on some self-destructive, fruitless behavior. On the other hand we have people in society who, despite a physical or mental challenge, succeed beyond any casual prediction others may have made. I know a young man named Mitch, who independently manages to go to and from work every day on public transportation and stop in the local 7-11 on the way home to buy himself a treat despite the challenges Downs Syndrome has presented to him and his parents since his birth. This might seem like a small thing to some, but to people in his situation itís a huge achievement in life. The difference between him and another who was not so successful was the dedicated motivation of two great parents and a lot of help from caring professionals along the way. Top that off with the most important ingredient, (self- motivation) and you have a roadmap for success. I am always gratified and inspired when I think of my friend Mitch.
On the opposite extreme, I canít help but think about the occasional student who comes to my college painting class, expecting to get a good grade by just showing up (and sometimes not even doing that). The obvious motivation is a good grade, which they always want in the worst way, and thatís usually how they go about doing it. A grade is an external motivation and a poor reason to be in a class in the first place. It usually turns out to be a test of endurance on the part of the student taking up a seat, and for me, enduring their obvious lack of interest. Sometimes when I walk by their work space it feels almost like a black hole in outer space; it zaps my energy just drifting past their low tone boredom.
Noted '60s psychologist Timothy Leary once counseled a generation of gullible youths to ďturn on, tune in and drop out.Ē I say, ďTurn off the negative self talk and disinterested attitude, tune into life and drop the video game controller along with the ear budsĒ; there are a lot of positive things to get excited about in this world.
Once when I was painting out in a field near my home I was startled by a young couple who were pushing their small child in a stroller; they stopped to literally applaud what I was doing. When I asked why they were clapping, they said it was nice to see someone doing something real for a change. Their cryptic reference to the world of virtual reality had an impact on my comments today.
In another life experience, when I was in college I used to earn extra money for tuition by painting houses on the weekends and in the summer. This was a practice I even used after I got married to bring home some extra cash. I remember a contractor once commenting to me that since we had to be there for eight hours anyway, it was better that we gave it our all, than to go through the motions waiting for the 5 oíclock whistle to blow. Thatís another tidbit I picked up that has stuck and grown into a philosophy about life.
I suppose by now, some of my readers are a little disappointed, hoping that I would get to the real meat of the subject, learning to paint. But, in a way, I think I have done that. If I can inspire someone to put a little more dedication into their work and make what they do an important aspect of their experience, I will have succeeded in helping someone on their journey to better painting.
In closing let me just give a few tips on learning to paint: Study from the best; be willing to devote time, energy and money pursuing your goal. Practice, practice, practice and study good paintings in museums and galleries. Invest in a good art magazine or two. Read books on the subject and get hooked up with other artists who share your goal. Go out often, painting and drawing from life. Take a trip to a museum and get permission to paint from one of your favorite masterworks. Take classes from good artists wherever you can find them; some of the best classes I have had were through local art associations who had the nerve to invite famous, and not so famous artists to put on a workshop. Do something ďartyĒ every day, even if you only have five minutes to spare looking at a painting in a magazine. Lastly, be motivated and believe you can do it, donít spend time spinning your wheels or whining about failures. Be willing to paint over or toss paintings that didnít turn out, itís all part of the process. Be sure to learn from every mistake you make, these really are your friends; turn weak things into strengths! Above all, enjoy what you are doing and share what you know with others, youíll be surprised at your growth, both in painting and in life!
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
The Illusions of Joe Carter
Manufactured objects begin their existences already possessingóand possessed byóa history. Even the latest digital wonder evokes a potential deluge of memory: early computers, radios, land lines, and wind-up phonographs are just some of the connections the latest cell phone may make. Earlier machines project memory in both directions: my first thought, on seeing Joe Carterís "Remington Upstrike No. 7," |0| was of Mark Twain, a writer contemporary to the invention of the typewriter who was well known for his enthusiastic, even irresponsible attraction to new technologies. No surprise to learn from Carterís statement that Twain was among the first to acquire an Upstrike, which must have connected fountain pens to printing presses for him. But to look at the actual machine, standing next to the painting on a pedestal, calls to mind the century past: not only the wear and tear visible on one example, but the changes in fashion and fortune of a once-invaluable tool that is now, in so far as its original purpose is concerned, obsolete. We elders make jokes when we use a term like Ďrecordí or ĎLPí in the presence of younger listeners, pretending to explain about those 12-inch black discs that contained music. It would not be a joke to explain some of the subjects Carter has painted. Even if a viewer recognized an electron tube,|1| what are the chances she would understand its concept and operation the way she grasps her iPod?
Memory, in short, is unreliable: too much with us when we should better forget, but leaving us bereft just when we need it most. As discussed before in these pages (see Shawn Rossiter on The Emigrants, and follow the links to Anselm Kiefer), some recent artists around the world have taken memory and its misuse to task in their works. In this country, meanwhile, while our pundits loudly lament our short memories and attention spans, our culture and politics dwell increasingly in the past. Our latest movies come from old TV shows and even older comics, while we vote for the party that makes us feel most like the way we used to feel. Compare this to a painter like the German, Gerhard Richter, who paints blurry black and white images based on newspaper photos, counting on the durability of art to make sure important events arenít forgotten like the dead fish we might wrap up in those newspapers and throw out.
I have to confess to feeling ambivalent about the power of painters like Carter to evoke memory. In the beginning, painters represented symbolic objects, like candles for souls, water for purity, and flowers for renewal, and made them look real to make us feel their presence. Today, nostalgia is big business, realism gives us illusions, and antiquated goods are often part of the way we distract ourselves from an unwelcome present and escape instead into the past. Still, whoís to say that the nostalgia a childís toy evokes, like "Little Red Truck" |2| or "Buddy," |3| canít release a powerful understanding in the viewer, stoked by a childís unforgettable feelings? Gaze a while at "Tangle" and realize how much effort and pride went into designing just the packagesóthread spools in this caseóordinary things used to come in.|4| Yes, something went out of our lives with the arrival of mass production, but it wasnít the machines that committed the theft. Neither are they the primary force holding back real progress, or real understanding.
Whatís not evident in the photos that accompany this review, but must be seen in person, is how Carterís paintings actually look, and how they function visually. They are bigger, of course: some of them ten square feet or more. The brushwork is also looser than their small, photo-like images suggest. At a distance, glare and compound shadows call into question the perfectibility of perception; walk up close and the evidence of craft asks whether a brand new product can ever be mistaken for a finished, static version or final state. After all, arenít wear and tear analogs in a way to the brushstrokes that gradually build a painting? Both are parts of history. One possible lesson of Carterís enlargements of found objects is that warm, fuzzy feelings masquerading as nostalgic memories do not stop time or authorize us to stop looking. Carter likes to paint jars in which odd items are displayed.|5| It could be about hermetic preservation, a close relative of asphyxiation. Or it could be the way filling a space makes us see that space in a way we donít when itís empty: just space. Whether the illusion is half-full or half-empty is for the viewer to decide.