Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Observer Effect and Plein Air Painting

Secret Shadow Creek
9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Plein Air Painting Workshop Demonstration


I enjoy teaching and sharing.  Part of my teaching involves painting demonstrations.   I get a lot of painting done that way.  But as tempting as it is to take the easy way out and just paint for demonstrations, I still seek time to paint by myself, for myself.  Most instructors admit that it's difficult to grow as a painter when painting only for students, although that well-trod path does sometime present pleasant detours where even the instructor learns something.  However, I believe you grow more quickly as a painter when bushwhacking on your own.

But what about when not teaching but painting in groups, or with a friend or someone who just wants to tag along?  Can you reach new places when not painting alone?

In physics, there is something called the "observer effect."  The usual example is that of measuring pressure in a tire.  You can't use a tire gauge without losing a little air; thus, you can't get a true reading because the measured pressure will always be less than what it was before applying the gauge.  For me as a painter, the observer effect seems to hold true.  Just having another person present changes the game.  You may be as quiet as a mouse, but I know you're there.  I have no proof, but I sense that I paint differently then.  Not necessarily worse or better, just differently.

(This is not to say my demonstrations aren't good.  It would be immodest of me to state that they are good.  But my students say they not only learn a lot from them, but that they are good paintings, too.)

Let me break down the different painting situations I run into:


Paint-alongs.  Here, students paint along beside me.  Usually, they're beginners who want to follow step-by-step.  Since I'm not painting for myself but for them, I choose a simple, easy subject that they can handle.  In paint-alongs, there is no "flow," as the process is interrupted repeatedly by waiting for students to catch up.  This can be a good thing, though, since it forces me to slow down and to consider my next step more carefully.

Demonstrations.  Again, I am painting for the students.  My goal isn't to create a masterpiece but to illustrate a painting concept and, depending on the skill level of the group, this concept may be something more or less difficult. Things generally flow well in this situation, since I am narrating as I go and without much interruption.  The subject and time of day, however, are dictated by curriculum.  Still, because I'm trying to demonstrate live and in the field, I have to roll with whatever nature sends me, and I almost always learn something.

Plein air group.  In this case, the group has determined where and when we are going to paint, which of course limits subject matter and time of day.  Also, since I'm a recognized instructor, I sometimes get a few questions in the field.  Most times, participants honor the painting time and get personal chat and technical questions out of the way once the brushes get moving.  Still, I'm always aware someone may come over to take a peek at my work, and I feel a need to be accessible.  After all, I have my reputation as a generous teacher—and good painter—to maintain.

Buddy painting.  I only have a couple of buddies I paint with.  Usually it's a road trip to a place we both really want to paint.  We paint all day, quietly, and then in the evenings we share what we painted (both failures and successes) and talk about art.  These times are incredibly valuable to both of us because we get feedback from someone we respect for insight and honesty.  Of course, when painting, we're aware of each other but it's more like a pair of lions hunting together—each is focused on the hunt.  Still, if my friend wants to point the RV to some special place he knows, I'll go with him and trust for the best.

Painting alone.  When I'm painting alone, I don't have to turn out a demonstration that is both beautiful and educational.  I can make mistakes.  I can scrape down the canvas as many times as I need to get a particular stroke right.  If I fail, I've probably learned something, anyway.  I can experiment, work on a difficulty I'm having, or push a project further ahead—all with the goal of becoming a better painter.


I'd love for you to share some of your thoughts on painting by yourself and with others.

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