Sunday, September 3, 2006

Focus

A still life painter uses a box to contain his oranges, apples and pears as he paints. This box gives him more control over lighting. But it also serves another purpose. It separates the arrangement from distracting backgrounds and the clutter of the studio.

The plein air painter has no such box. Whatever his subject, it sits in a world that writhes with distractions. Another interesting tree-shape, a building with a curious door, a colorful swath of meadow -- all things he didn't see at first, and all of them just outside his chosen frame -- compete for a place in the painting.

If we plein air painters had such a box, fewer of our paintings would go astray. If we could carry out to the field, say, a duck blind on wheels, and paint inside that looking out, we might have better luck. But since "portable" is our motto, we must seek a better option. That option is the very portable one that consists of sheer will power. It's the ability to give up what else we would like to include and to stick with our first choice.

Where I live, which is by the broad ocean with breathtaking vistas of sea cliffs, I am often tempted to take in an extended range worthy of Albert Bierstadt. But when I set up my pochade box and my usual 8x10 panel, experience tells me to settle for less. If my first choice was a stunted, storm-blasted tree jutting up out of a field of wild roses, that is what I paint. I forgo the scenic piles of driftwood just outside my chosen view, and the scallop boats trawling the bay, and the waves crashing on the most distant cliffs, and -- but you get the point.

I tell myself that life is long, and I will eventually paint all those other scenes. This is not true, of course, but it does take the pressure off.

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