Ever start telling someone a story, only to have them change the subject before you get to the point? Frustrating!
That’s how I feel at plein air competitions, when I’m not given the time I need to finish a picture.
I participated in a plein air competition or "paint out" a few years ago. I have also gotten together with other artists from time to time to paint "plein air" (outdoors) here in New York. And I seem to be the one who is last to pack up and go home. As a hard-core realist, I work with a fever and have to plan on returning to the site on my own if I want to finish a picture that is bigger than what I call a "pocket miniature". While some artists praise plein air events as a chance to finish a painting in two or three hours, I can't possibly bring any painting of even modest size to completion in that short amount of time. And that leaves me wondering how many artists who promote themselves as plein air painters or impressionists aren't interested in the kind of commitment it takes to work in a more demanding style of realism that requires a lot more hours of highly-focused attention.
From examining typical itineraries of plein air paint-outs, it’s obvious that considerable emphasis is put on speed. There might even be a prize for the biggest plein air painting. Between that and the tendency to move everybody through 2 to 4 painting sites in a day, you have to come to the conclusion that these events are primarily about speed and what painters call "starts".
If showing off your speed is what it's largely about (and there are "Quick Draw" competitions at many plein air festivals), then theses events tend to become a kind of race. I’d rather concern myself with fulfilling my vision of where I want to go with a picture, and see how much I can convey of my experience of what I see in front of me. I'd rather execute a stumbling Chopin nocturne than do a perfect rendition of "Happy Birthday". I recall a quote I heard many years ago to the effect that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for"? Why shouldn't that apply to fine art?
I wonder how many people brand themselves as Impressionists or Plein Air painters because that's as far as they are willing to take things, as hard as they are willing to work, as good as they can do. Do some artists say "That's good enough" once they are getting a certain number of compliments? Do they feel satisfied with what they have managed to do well, without feeling the need for a bigger challenge? Would they rather not risk failure by pushing themselves onward?
Recently I came across people who claim you can become fluent in another language in just 3 months. Fluent? Heck no. You can get by as a tourist with a typical tourist script, a lot of cramming, and a good amount of gesturing, maybe. You might get some compliments, too, for making some effort. But fluent? No way. From what I know about the verbal abilities of children, you probably won't do as well as a three-year-old. In my mind, "fluent" requires a very substantial vocabulary, the ability to understand a language colored by a regional accent, with a good grasp of spelling, grammar, sentence structure, idiomatic usage and gender.
I take these standards to painting, as well. And that takes a serious investment in time.
I recall the comment a coworker made to an impatient supervisor when I was a Tiffany jeweler: “You can have it good, or you can have it fast.” Often, that’s the choice you have to make. When I paint, working fast is not my main object. And I actually get a lot of satisfaction out of working hard and achieving something I couldn't manage a month or a year earlier. So what if it takes a lot of time?
Circus Dogs Perform for Treats
I’d much rather finish a picture to my satisfaction than call it “good enough” as soon as it earns compliments or easy money. It takes time and patience, but that’s my inclination. I'm prepared to "fail" in order to ultimately succeed on my own terms.
Some art is just play. Other art has a lot in common with athletics.
On one of my visits to the Yucatan, a friend I was staying with told me I should stop working on a picture during one of my initial oil washes and not continue to solidify the picture. “Before you ruin it”, he said. He paid me the compliment of saying it looked very “John Singer Sargent” the way it was.
But so what? I don’t work for “treats” like approval, or to satisfy anybody besides myself. Trained animals do that. Did I ruin the picture? It was a different picture when I finished than when I had only started, but I'm happy with it. (And my Yucatanian friend tells me he really admires the way I paint, in spite of his comment. See the finished painting, "Laurel Tree, Merida, Mexico" below.)
Who ARE You As an Artist?
I am not John Singer Sargent, nor do I aspire to be. And I once read that Sargent was not always entirely happy with his own skill level. He made tons of money going as far as he went, but he also remarked at one point that his half-tones “fell apart” if he tried to push a picture to the finish level William MacGregor Paxton achieved.
And that remark leads me to believe that, most likely, Sargent decided at some point that the way he worked was “good enough”. He stuck to doing what he did best and left it pretty much at that. There was much in his work that was admirable; he was perhaps a showman as much as a painter. He made a ton of money, but there was a point at which he was sick and tired of cranking out the same-old society portraits and refused to do any more portrait commissions, even when he was offered a blank check.
Portrait commissions had become just a job. Yuck!
Many "slap-dab" artists today make a better living than the painstaking. I know it's akin to heresy in some circles, but I have to wonder what kind of pictures Sargent would have been making if he hadn’t settled for what he could more easily accomplish rather than keep working and studying until he could handle those halftones like Paxton!
Is the Expense and Exhaustion Worth It?
Some artists participate in as many as ten, maybe even more, plein air events per year, so they obviously get what they want out of these expensive events. The artistic production of these festivals is strongly inclined towards Impressionism or other painting styles that tend to be "spare" or calligraphic. If that’s not your style, then it’s not. Maybe for you there are better ways to reach your goals.
I don't want to sell my oil paintings in a "wet paint" sale, either. Oil paintings need time to dry thoroughly before being handled, varnished and framed. I want the results of my efforts to survive over time, not just put bread on the table for a week or a month. When someone buys one of my original artworks, I want to provide excellent ongoing customer service, too. I want to stay in touch. I'm not selling shoes for somebody to use for a while and then throw away. Fine artwork is culture, not consumer goods.
I Came Home Fairly Satisfied
I came home from my festival experience with a few pictures after selling one at the festival (Banyan and Cockerel, below). I skipped some sites that others visited in order to go back to my favorite site and finish at least this one picture to my satisfaction. After subtracting my expenses for the trip – including the share of the purchase price taken by the exhibition venue, I had a loss rather than a profit. This was in spite of the fact that the price paid for the picture by a collector who owns "Master" artworks was way more than an average person will pay for any artwork. Being in this collection with Masterworks was the greatest "compliment" I've ever received!
Okay, I Confess!
I have done a few "studies" that I'm satisfied with; I don't feel the need to add to or adjust them. Sometimes a piece of flash fiction suits a writer's purposes better than a War and Peace-size novel.
I'm also experimenting with monoprints, some of which are abstractions or experimental. Even these require a certain sensibility, and they are successful in their own right for what they are. The prices are commensurate with the much smaller amount of time they take to make, of course. (See examples of my prints elsewhere on this website.)
I don’t know if I’ll participate in another competitive plein air event or not, but likely not. I’d generally rather paint on my own terms than wring myself out trying to beat the clock on little sleep and a fair dose of jet lag.
It would be a nice change if there were also paint-outs that weren’t races, where the organizers spent a day driving you around to various sites, you picked one, and then you returned to that site every day for the entire length of the festival (one, maybe two weeks) to really complete one painting. But perhaps not that many people would want to work that way, so the venues might not get as many participants and, therefore, would make less money. (Forgive me for the editorializing, but too many things in life are just about money.)
I’ve been teased by other artists for the amount of time I’m willing to put into a picture. Some people might see it as a problem, and maybe it is for them. Maybe they don't know how to finish a job they've started. Maybe they don't have the patience, the drive to acquire more skills or the determination or the vision to go beyond what a hard-core literalist would call "a good start". Only they know.
Weasel word compliments
I'll let you in on something. The compliment "It's a good start" often amounts to "weasel words". What it often means is, "It's too early in the game to know if your picture is going to turn out well or not, but I want to encourage you." And sometimes it means, "I don't think it's even promising, but I don't want to rain on your parade."
I see no reason to limit myself to half-finished paintings when my acquired skills and sensibilities tell me to continue on to the end of what's possible. Does a horse suddenly stop running when he's happy he got half-way to the finish line in pretty good shape? That's not for me. Even if I can't see the finish line from where I am and don't know how much effort I'm going to have to summon up to get there, I'm almost always going to continue to pound that track until I've gone the whole distance, and that means until I'm satisfied that there's nothing else I can do with the piece.
I only stop when I'm done running.