As I listened to my friend Kathy field calls yesterday, I was reminded of how fragmented our lives really are, and how our memories gloss over the interruptions. Perhaps she will remember her Maine trip for birdwatching and reading, but in reality she is spending a good part of it on the phone, trying to cobble together a care plan for an elderly relative.
We got a late start painting because I wanted Brad Marshall to choose the scene. I took him to two shingle beaches and a lighthouse, all at Owl’s Head State Park. As we trudged along a wooded path, Brad reminisced about his very first plein air painting, decades ago.
Brad is a very experienced artist. He attended the San Francisco Academy of Art, and he works as a sign-painter, doing massive pictorial murals all over the US. His paintings are represented by the Fischbach Gallery.
There he was in Stonington, with a field easel and some paints. How hard, he asked himself, could this plein air lark be?
“It wasn’t like I’d never painted from life,” he said. “I had lots of experience with that. I was just unprepared for the difficulties of plein air.”
He was totally frustrated. “I thought, who is this man?” laughed Kathy. Still, the resulting painting, A Path in the Maine Woods, has proved enduringly popular.
I frequently tell my students that plein air is the most difficult and highest expression of painting. You can paint from photos? Congratulations; you know how to copy.
Why bother with the extra work of learning to paint landscapes from life? The camera does a lot of the hard work for you, but it also eliminates most choices. It flattens out light and perspective. When you paint outdoors, you’re not just faithfully recording what you see, you’re painting your relationship with the natural world.
Yesterday my own painting was fragmented by too much closeness with my cell phone. There was something I needed to straighten out about next week’s workshop. I had scheduling issues for September that could not wait. Trying to answer these questions without my laptop, I managed to create a wild kerfuffle in my own mind. I got upset with a vendor, but it turns out that I, not she, was in the wrong.
To me, multitasking just means doing everything badly. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Listening to Kathy scrambling to fix her loved one’s problem, I was reminded that peace of mind is a great gift. Many of us are so overstimulated by years of fielding emergencies that we don’t even recognize peace when it shows up at our door. I’m not grateful enough for it.