Saturday, December 10, 2011

Not Painting the Obvious

"Bear Mountain View" 6x12, oil

One of the problems with painting in truly spectacular places is that it is so easy to paint the obvious.  Especially if it's a famous spot, the chances are you'll paint a hackneyed view, something that's been on hundred of postcards and in thousands of family photo albums.  Sedona is a bit like that.  Everyone likes to photograph (and paint) Cathedral Rock with the waters of Oak Creek shimmering in the foreground.  I'm guilty of dozens of such photos and paintings.  But it is a pretty scene!

What is the obvious?  I'm speaking more about design than anything else.  Even if Cathedral Rock weren't famous, it'd still be an obvious scene.  The creek provides a great lead-in for the viewer, and the rock itself is a perfect center of interest.  Frederick Law Olmsted couldn't have designed a more visually pleasing landscape.

But it's too easy.  Plant a dozen painters in front of it, and they'll paint virtually the same design.  (Granted, media and style will be different.)

When you're confronted with the obvious, turning around 180 degrees and painting something else will force you into discovery mode.  Discovery mode is something we should all stretch for.  It's what makes us grow as painters.

There's one place where I've never been able to find the obvious.  Compositions are frustratingly hard to come by.  It's the old town dump, now overgrown with prickly pear, creosote bush and juniper.   You do get views of the Sedona red rocks, but they are distant.  What a great idea it would be to take a group of students there and tell them to find something to paint.  They'd probably scratch their heads, ask me why we just didn't go to Cathedral Rock where there is something to paint.  Someday, they'd understand I was doing them a favor.

Above is a sketch I did there yesterday.


Jo Castillo said...

I like your painting sketch! Great idea, thanks for always pushing us to try a new idea.

Helen Opie said...

Pei painter Henry Purdy did the equivalent of this on the first day of his workshops. He took us to a little inlet outside St Andrews down the Hrkness Rd (as I recall) where there was othing to paint - well, he creek, some firs, a few old weathered wharf posts. After we went there the 2nd year, I asked him why he took us there when he know of so many other more scenic places. His reply has stayed with me. He said (paraphrased, no doubt):

"I take you here on purpose, because there is nothing to paint. This way I can see what you do when you cannot fall back on what your other teachers have taught you in terms of making a painting. I can see what you do on your own initiative when you have only yourself to rely on." I was impressed; it does force a person into finding their own resources within them.

(My solution was to find a close-up composition the first year, and the 2nd year, when I'd moved away from the group in search of a composition - near where I'd found one the year before - I looked back, was charmed by the way all the others had set themselves up in a sinous line across the shingle and onto the rocks that I stopped right then and painted the class; a found composition that would never be there again.)

I'll be interested to hear what happens if you do take a class to the old Sedona dump.

Becky Joy said...

Always good to find ways to push ourselves. Some of the paintings that stop us are the unusual viewpoint. Thanks Michael.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Thank you, Jo, Helen and Becky!