Short and Sweet or Long and Carried Away?
All things being equal, would you rather paint little plein-air paintings in one sitting (alla prima) or would you prefer painting larger paintings that require many sittings? I prefer the latter, hands down.
Below are the smallest plein air painting I’ve ever done (8.5 x 8.5 inches) and the largest (6 x 9 feet).
The painting on the left is the smallest. I guess the virtue of doing small paintings is that there are not the kind of weather problems that one confronts when painting large (as I shall describe in a moment). Small paintings, to me, are sketches really. Fun to simplify. Spontaneity is key. Bing, bang, boom and you’re out of there. And that, for me, is the problem. I’m unable to get drawn in. There’s not that transfiguration that mysteriously takes place after hours of searching. Besides, I don’t like treadmill, knowing that every time I paint, a tidy, finished product will result. Sure, once in awhile, then it’s play. But regularly? No. Then I feel house trained.
Below is my largest painting. Given the size, the painting required a lot of planning, and a few smaller studies. Plus it was a commission, so the process was a bit structured. But the size of the canvas was also an opportunity to be bold and splash around with a large brush (about a 12) and invite some titanic force of nature to emerge. Not possible with a dinky canvas.
The virtue of working big then, for me, is that you can do so much more with a large canvas. For example, here’s a golden oldie (from the mid ‘90s) that I did in San Francisco. In this painting of City Hall (3 x 6 ft), I built up the texture and was able, therefore, to drag subtle colors over the little textural bumps to get a sense of shimmering evening light. Impossible in a single sitting.
But the big negative with large canvases, however, is the weather. In the painting below (2’x4′), my intention was to go very deeply, to push the thing to the edge of abstraction, to await that unveiling that often appears when one is patient, when one surrenders.
I began the painting in April. My approach was to go slowly each evening for an hour or less as the sun was setting (the window when everything came together was really only about 25 minutes) and get consumed by the dazzling variety of subtle, changing color as the shadow crept up the mountain and, by contrast, the way the mountain became jewel-like as it reflected the setting sun. All of this would begin at around 6:30 PM or so and in April, when there was minimal humidity, the experience was a kind of a bright trippiness.
The detail to the left reveals the challenge. The warm, pervading blues in the large cast shadow seemed to sit behind the veil of warm green, at least on some of the evenings. I cannot get that sense of looking through atmosphere on small canvases or on canvases where one is forced to paint wet on wet.
On other evenings, the veil of quinacridone (left), seemed to slip down from a sky curtain, making some of the blues turn purpleish. So often, this pinky cool veil seemed to want to blanket everything.
On other evenings the bright yellows just didn’t appear. Instead, warm oranges took their place. I worked on this painting about a dozen separate evenings and as the weeks rolled by (keep in mind, I had to wait for an absolutely clear sunny evening), I began to realize that my dalliance with sharp, bright, flickering lemon yellows was drawing to a close. Spring was slipping away.
What to do? I had already shifted the entire painting first one way and then another, struggling to keep up with nature’s never-ending parade of colors. So I decided to wait. Sigh! The bright humid-free colors never returned.
Now, it is mid-summer, hot and hazy. The predominant tonality is a pinkish glow. Just wonderful. But I was seduced by those sparkling yellows and I needed more time to really see them, to get into a position where I could actually play with them. Moreover, now the summer sun is in a different position in the sky. The shadow now appears at about 8:30-9:00 PM and quickly covers the little village across the lake that was once just a jumble of sparkling light streaks. The truth finally sunk in. My seductress had left the building. Maybe I’ll wait until Spring next year and see what nature has to offer me. Or not. It’s complete in every stage, right? But I did want to go further. Please gods of color, one more date?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy small studies too. But it is the difference between a single flower and an abundant garden overflowing. If I had my druthers, I would paint with an army of art Sherpas, helping with the easel and large canvases and keeping the palette fresh with about 40 colors, no 70 – or even more, wheeling in a new painting after about a half hour. Just looking for color, placing the color, not a care in the world, no results to worry about, never finishing, always beginning. Now, that would be the life.