"Windy Day at Pleasant Point, Wellfleet, Cape Cod, MA," painted entirely with a palette knife.Using only one tool and working quickly can often yield results that look fresh and spontaneous. I am normally what you would call an ‘organized’ painter. I think over my ideas for a long time, then I very carefully sketch them out in pencil, lay in large segments of shadows and undercoatings if I’m working in oils, and carefully start to build up the paint layers. So as a challenge to myself I bring my painting equipment on vacation and try to let all my usual techniques go on vacation, too.
It is never easy to change your style. It’s like going out and buying a whole slew of clothes you would never wear. They’re too precious or strange. They are all dry clean only.
The practice of painting en plein air and making a tolerable painting out of the day does not come without some internal warring. You start out with the ‘keep it loose’ mantra and swear it will turn out fresh and simple, just like the work of that painter you met on the shore yesterday. But it is hard. The hand wants to use its old habits, and take a route that holds some promise of success. If not, who knows what muddy color will emerge in the spot where the really dramatic contrast between grass and shady trees was supposed to go?
So here are a few things I’ve learned in the only-do-this-once-a-year intervals I've had painting in the field:
If you want your work to look loose and fresh, stop doing what you normally do. If you’re like me and plod along, nose to canvas, mixing tiny little bits of color to just the right shade, quit it. Make big, messy, half mixed heaps of color with a palette knife. Apply to canvas. Most importantly, if the first swipe looks cool, LEAVE IT ALONE. It it will not look better with a second pass. Just leave it. … leeeave it. Leave it!
Again, stop doing stuff. Just make a few marks, then stop. Step back.
Look for a bird you just heard calling. Look at the water. See how much paint is on your arm. Turn around in a circle. Just don’t stare at the canvas. Pretend you are a goldfish with a short attention span. Look away. If you look back after a few seconds and you are pleasantly surprised, that’s great! Oftentimes you will look up and your eye will go to the place that needs work.
If you are working on a small surface, bring a big pad of paper to use for sketching. Take a break now and then to use some big, messy charcoal or pastel stick to make a quick sketch of a completely different thing in your field of vision. If you are working big, make some tiny doodles in a notepad. Don’t let your hand sink into any one style of movement for long stretches of time.
If it’s really not going well, let the current piece go for the day. Start another painting or drawing, or switch activities entirely. Read a book. Stare at clouds. Failure is not staring at clouds. It’s a beautiful day. Just enjoying it is enough.