Back to School
The sun was just beginning to rise at 6:15am as I packed up the truck for my first day of school in Sheridan, WY, August 28th, 2019. Normally at this time of the morning I would still be in my pajamas, slowly sipping a cup of java and suffering through the news. But this morning I was getting ready to go to class for the first time since graduation from trade school so many moons ago. I laughed at myself as I fought against the same fears I had as a teenager: What if I get lost? What if I can’t keep up? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I don’t make any friends?
I had signed up for a plein air painting class just days before, catching the advertisement on Facebook and jumping at the chance to sit under the instruction of a real live professional artist. I had not had any interaction with an art teacher since 1988, and then it was for architectural drafting – not painting. Everything I knew up to this point came from books, DVD’s, online workshops, and good ol’ fashioned trial and error. I was most anxious for what I would learn painting out in the open air under the tutorship of Jenny Wuerker, a fine artist from Buffalo, WY. (Check her out at www.wuerkerfineart.com!)
I made it to SAGE Community Arts Center and met Jenny, along with a dozen other artists whose work graced the walls of the gallery. I began to feel like the amateur again – not good enough, not published enough, not experienced enough – and argued with myself against taking flight and driving the two-hour stretch back to Pine Haven. Needless to say, I stayed. And I’m SO glad I did.
WHAT I LEARNED
Week One: Trail End Museum
DON’T FORGET YOUR EASEL! (Which I did.) Sitting on a concrete sidewalk for two hours (or even five minutes) is painful and not for the aging. I would have sat on the grass but it was covered with dew and I didn't think a wet behind on the first day of school was a good idea.
Draw the scene with a small paintbrush first on your canvas, as quickly as you can. Step back often and fix mistakes early on in your painting so you’re not trying to repaint the whole thing too late in the process.
Look for dynamics in your scene: lines, light, shadows, shapes. And snakes. Always look for snakes. Jenny paints with a gun on her hip and has killed many rattlers. Which, in my book, is just the coolest thing ever.
There is SO much more information visible onsite as opposed to painting from photographs. More color. More definition. More feeling and/or mood.
Week Two: Sheridan Visitors Center
Paint in values in 3 stages: dark, medium, and light. Squint your eyes to find them.
Don’t paint the tree – paint the value shapes of the tree: a dark triangle, a light square. “Block it in”.
Bees like the smell of paint and turpentine as much as I do. They are persistent. And very irritating. If you use your palette to waft them, you will lose half your paint on the ground. (Ask me how I know.)
Getting a high five from your teacher is a great feeling. Jenny assigned me the task of filling in my canvas completely by the end of our 3-hour session. When she reviewed my work, she gave me a congratulatory high five, confirming that what I did was artistically correct and good. I almost wished she had little gold star stickers to hand out. I would have stuck mine to my forehead for all to see.
Week Three: SAGE Community Center
Just because it’s raining doesn’t mean you can’t paint plein air, or ‘in the open air’. I chose to paint the walls of the gallery where there was a plein air exhibit going on. So I painted the plein air paintings en plein air. One gal called it “plein air inception”.
It’s okay to compare your work with that of another artist. I had taken my previous plein air paintings along that I had finished in my studio for Jenny to critique. She told me to pick a few paintings on the walls that stood out to me and then held my work up beside them to compare and determine what I might be missing, what I would do differently. I noticed that while there were things I would change, there was much that I already did the same. I gave myself another imaginary gold star.
My confidence was building. Not only in my acquired skills up to this point, but in what I would continue to learn in the future. I was a sponge.
Week Four: Brinton Museum
Look for the “eye candy” and drop that in first: one thing that pops, which is usually something having to do with light. I chose to target the morning light on the field at the base of the mountains.
Focus in on one or two things you want to express as opposed to looking for every little detail in a scene. This was priceless and pivotal information and helped me loosen up quite a bit with color and brush strokes.
Know when to stop. Quit before it turns to mud, which is common with oils because they stay wet. I switched back and forth from paint brush to palette knife, the knife being my weapon of choice because of the ability to layer the paint instead of smearing and blending it all together.
Another high five from your teacher and an invitation to her next two oil painting classes will put you on cloud nine. A second invitation to become a member and hang your work at SAGE Community Arts will send you over the top. Forget the little gold stars. It was time for cake.
Week Five: Back to Brinton (except for me)
The class met once again at the Brinton Museum, although I could not attend this session due to illness. So I got healed up and a couple days later ventured out on my own down by the lake.
Trying to put to action everything I had learned from Jenny, I squinted my eyes and blocked in my values with a brush, then went to town on the colors. It was a bit windy that day and the water was capping along the shore line creating that “candy”, which I painted in first so I didn't forget it.
The sun moves quickly. I had to re-position my easel several times as the trees began to shadow my work space which really changed the paint colors.
Jenny was right when she said “be well aware of where you’re standing”. I almost stepped off the cliff. Twice.
I didn’t want to go back to painting from photographs. Ever.
When I tried, I found myself attempting to invent the bits of information I had pulled from the real deal – details in the shadows that become blurred in a two-dimensional picture…the truth of the colors in the daylight…the reflection and warmth of the sun on the objects below. More than the technical experience, plein air painting was both physical and emotional. I could breathe in the clean air…feel the sun on my back …get my knees wet from kneeling in the wet grass…listen to the birds and the chattering squirrels. I was hooked, and wanted to touch, taste and feel everything I painted from that moment on, working with the prayer that everyone who bought one of my pieces would be able to touch, taste and feel everything I did. The joy would be in the practice. And that day I planned to practice regularly from that moment on.