Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Clock Ticks, the Tide Rises

"Out to Pasture
12x16, oil/canavas

When I go out painting, I don't normally put myself in a situation where I may have to move my easel. There's nothing more disruptive than having to break down and set up again when you're "in the zone."

Yesterday, I found the perfect romantic scene of an old boat put "out to pasture" over at the Head Harbour Wharf. Well, not quite perfect. To get to the best vantage point, I had to go down a steep slope and cross a bit of land that is underwater at high tide. We were at flood tide - that is, the water was rising - and the painting spot was about two hours from becoming an island.

The boat was the most complicated piece of the scene and demanded my focus. I long ago stopped taking a camera into the field to take reference shots. If I know I'm going to be tight on time, I try to get the drawing right and then make color notes for everything else. With these, and also several minutes of careful observation committed to memory, I can make a successful painting.

Sure enough, my painting friend and I got wrapped up in our work. When one of us finally thought to check the path behind us, we saw only a six-inch-wide strip of dry land remaining! And it was fast shrinking. We immediately broke down our gear and wrestled our way up the rocky path to safety.

The iron was still hot when I got back to the studio, so I spent about another two hours finishing "Out to Pasture".

The poet Wordsworth once said that poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquility." We can apply this to painting, as well. The plein air piece is emotion, directly stated and with what tools, physical as well as mental, that the artist took into the field. Often, tranquility (nor time) is available in sufficient quantity to bring poetry to the scene. For that, we have the studio.

By the way, lately I've been working on stretched canvas rather than panel, and in bigger sizes than I normally do outdoors. Because I'm painting larger, I'm using thinner paint, and the canvas weave gives me a softer stroke. Whereas my panel paintings tend to start off with a lot of hard edges that I need to soften in the finishing stages, these start off soft and need to have hard edges introduced.


Gwen Bell said...

Wonderful composition and great title! Love the soft color palette. Great story to go with it too. Your work is so beautiful!

Helen Opie said...

When Michael faced the rapidly rising tide, he was facing a body of water that rises vertically an inch a MINUTE! You must have done some fast scrambling!

Interesting tip about shifting from panels to canvas...I'll have to see what I do differently when I paint on one or the other.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Thanks, Gwen and Helen. Yes, Helen is right! The tide is always a challenge, even if you're not in danger of being swamped. In two hours' time, the tide change will dramatically alter the profile of land and sea.

Ed Terpening said...

I love that Wordsworth quote, applied so well here. I think too often we get attached to labels, like "plein air painter". I kind of regret that names in my blog, really. It's just one approach, and it and studio work have to integrate. That poetic verse will remind me of that. I think I'll post it in my studio!

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Thanks, Ed!