vacation paintings

painting was now a natural part of my vacations. over the next year i took the kit on several business and pleasure trips, including more trips to new york and europe.

i painted outside during the day, weather and schedule permitting, and in the evenings in my hotel room. i would work at a table or sitting on the floor, while my wife napped, read or wrote postcards in bed.

during a four day thanksgiving vacation i did many paintings around mendocino, california.

the field paintings were done under time pressure or facing the awkward novelty of a completely novel subject or motif, so they also helped me to focus on the major elements of the scene.

i gradually recognized that field painting created subtle visual problems ... for example, brilliant outdoor light alters the perception of a painting's values and hues. when i brought back to the room my painting of the coast near mendocino, i felt unexpectedly discouraged at the dull, overworked colors, which happened because i could not get the cliffs as dark as i wanted them.

these field studies revealed so many missed opportunities that they often stimulated a series of paintings from memory. as i did these i varied the palette, brushwork, and atmosphere to look for improvements.

by working through these variations i started to understand the painting effects that i had wanted to create in the first place, but lacked the skill to execute clearly. working in a series became my primary method to investigate recognizable problems and emotionally to "let go" of an image that i hadn't painted to my satisfaction.

in the mendocino example, i did several copies, mostly increasing the saturation of the colors and reducing the number of paints (one version uses only three colors) to look for solutions to the light.

only much later i realized that a practical remedy was just to sit in the shade, where the brilliant sun wouldn't distort my color vision and value sense — and to get the major value contrasts down early as a guide the rest of the work.

any competent landscape painter would have told me as much, grimacing at my colors, but learning it for myself was an achievement, and also hammered the lesson unforgettably home.

with watercolors nothing is obvious: problems must be solved by experimentation; everything must be tested, observed, played with, explored.

each repeated painting was an opportunity to walk again through the technical problems and painting behavior, watching for technical problems i could solve better, coming at the image with a different mood (for example, in the different ways i rendered the painted waves).

no painting can be recreated exactly. but with the uncertainty of what's coming next? reduced by repetition, i could pay more attention to what's happening now? in my own looking and painting.

something else: i was wrestling with the realization that painting is an utterly lonely thing. this is, for me, a terrible pain at the center of it.

squatting on my ass in the warm sun, stewing at the argument with my feisty wife, imagining the white haze and white noise with my blunt tools and blunter talent, eyes squinting in the restless wind and light, trying to capture something at the limits of my skills and seeing — there is an unrelenting ache in that moment that tests my strength.

what strength? the strenth to accept that this is how it is, this is the best i can do, this is my way ... that falling short is sometimes the best i can do at flying.

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