Every plein air painter has run into this, and I'm no exception. It may come in the form, as it did for me most recently, of a pair of smiling, middle-aged, well-meaning tourists, leisurely strolling into the scene I was painting. "That looks like a lot of fun and very relaxing," they said.
They must not have seen the scowl of concentration on my face, nor that I was holding my breath, trying to lay down an accurate brush stroke. Or maybe they were just being ironic.
But usually, they're being sincere. In the mind of the civilian (i.e. non-painter) who has drunk deep from the well of common myth regarding artists, every outdoor painter is on holiday. They're thinking of Monet, dallying in his boat at Giverny, idly stabbing at a canvas and painting waterlilies while the dragonflies quietly dip and soar; or they're thinking of Edwardian novels with picnics and Sunday painters quietly sketching in the Cotswolds over a bottle of Bordeaux accompanied by lively conversation and a good cheese.
But for most of us, painting is work. (I know, I'm preaching to the choir.) It can be exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I've just finished digging a ditch.* And it's far from relaxing.
But it's important to relax when you paint. If you aren't in the wilds with babbling brooks to calm you, music will help. On my little Sansa MP3 player, lately I've been listening to Sigur Rós' very atmospheric "Valtari" album. Another trick is to avoid coffee and stimulants. As much as coffee - and raucous music - can inspire that final, virtuosic stroke of raw bravura, it more often just causes me to rush through the important early stages upon which a masterpiece depends. Also, pay attention to your breathing. Breathe. I often don't. I catch myself time and again holding my breath. I try frequently when painting to divert my attention, even if just for a second, to my breathing and try to establish a regular rhythm. (It'd be nice if the lungs worked like the heart, regularly and autonomously, but they don't.) Finally, even before you start painting, take a little walk to relax and get your soul around the task before you.
To my two visitors, I smiled and said, "If you only knew!"
*I might ask, Why isn't the comment ever addressed to ditch diggers? "Hey, that looks relaxing and fun!" would garner a sharp response not suited for mixed company. I suppose if I sweated like a ditch digger, people would be more sympathetic.