I have just finished an intensive (and intense) 5-day workshop in plein air landscape painting. Later, I may indulge myself and talk about the entire process and the 3 locations we painted at, but for this post I’d like to pose a question which comes out of just one location. The question I’m posing is how does one transfer the knowledge gained in doing one piece of art to her general practice? More specifically, how can I hang onto the insights that my instructor helped me gain and use them when I’m working on my own?

The specifics: On Wednesday we painted at the Willamette River waterfront, in a piece of waste ground, just to one side of the Interstate 405 (Fremont) Bridge as it rises over the river. One humongous stanchion was no more than 10 feet from my painting spot. The roar of the traffic was absolutely constant; it was only maddening if you tried to talk to someone. The field was dusty but large, the sun quite warm, the wind constant, and although there were city amenities beyond us on all sides, a chain link fence and heavily trafficed road cut us off. It was a total enveloping environment, not necessarily unpleasant if you sank into it.

That was Wednesday. On Thursday and Friday, we moved the art school’s painting studio and worked on projects based on one of the plein air pieces. I chose to enlarge upon images and ideas that I gathered from the Under-the-Underpass experiences.


Fremont Bridge 1, photo, June 2008


Fremont Bridge 2, Photo, June 2008


Fremont Bridge 3, photo, June 2008

Below are the two on-site paintings that I produced, each in about 3 hours of work.


Fremont Stanchion, 12 x 16, oil on board


Fremont Bridge and Front Avenue, 12 x 16, oil on board

When we went back to the studio for the two days of further work I brought in a larger canvas — 18 x 36 inches — with different proportions than the on-site boards. I had taken a lot of photos of the bridge and surrounds, and so I collaged them into an approximation of the size of the new canvas. The photos were, of course, incongruous with one another — I wasn’t attempting a panorama when I photographed them. But I taped them together so that some of the bridge contours approximately matched. I also collaged structures of the same bridge scene on what would be the top and bottom of the “canvas”, so the complexity of the scene was doubled. (The representation below isn’t the same as I had worked up in the studio; I couldn’t recapitulate at home what I was working from there. But it may give you some idea of what I had in mind.)

Collage of Fremont, Photos

By 3:45 on Thursday, the first full studio day, I had produced this from the collage above:


Fremont Bridge, draft 1

It was clearly not what I wanted. My desire was to bring in the force and power of the structures, a sense of the noise, and its enveloping presence. Instead what I had was swoosh.

At that point, Jef, the instructor, intervened. With the back of the brush, he traced a couple of lines through the paint that he suggested would give me something of the impact that I had in the collage. With 15 minutes left in the class, I took the biggest brush I had and reworked the canvas, like this:


Fremont Bridge, draft 2

The next morning, I faced the mass of confusion that I had left the day before. By the end of the workshop that day, I had advanced the painting to this point:


Fremont Bridge, draft 3

In two crucial areas, the instructor gave me advice that made the painting what it is. Relatively early on, he suggested inserting the telephone pole in the front center. And he showed me how to enlarge proportions and work over the perspective to give a sense of greater intensity, closeness, and distance.

His final suggestion, which I haven’t had a chance yet to act on, was to work the shadows and light irrationally, “incorrectly” a la Giorgio de Chirico.

Each of his suggestions was right on the mark. I doubt I could have carried off the painting without them. My conundrum now is how to see in such a way that I can make my own suggestions to myself and continue in this direction. I am reviewing my notes and my experience (this post on A&P is an important part of the process); are there other ways to imprint my memory and work with the specific knowledge I gained with this instructor?