Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Poop in Plein-Air Painting

Last week, on a clear, dry, 70-degree day, I packed my car with all my painting gear and happily headed for the Red Clay Reservation, a private land trust adjacent to Mt. Cuba in Hockessin, Delaware. I have permission to paint there.

Once there, I drove deep into the park, pulled my car off the gravel road, and then I dragged my paint box, bag of necessities (like paper towels, linseed oil, and turpentine), a small, outdoor collapsible stool, and my stretched canvas a considerable distance over a grassy field to my spot. (I need to say here that, since February, I have acquired a pain in my neck, and this makes the physical effort required much more intense).

However, my subject is high above a valley with a view of a small pond and springhouse. I am alone with the view, the singing birds, and the breeze. 

This photo shows you my subject as it was in early May:

As I started to set up my French easel, I noticed a pile of animal poop nearby. I set up well below it, and I told myself I knew it was there, it surprisingly did not smell, and I would be fine.
About an hour later, as I backed up to review the work I had done, I stepped right in it.
Plein-air painting instigates challenges like this!
I wonder, when something like this happens, why I have been painting outdoors for more than 40 years and why so many other painters do as well. Why do we leave the warmth, safety, and comfort of our studios to paint outside where we confront changing light, unexpected storms, distracting onlookers, insects, and the messy droppings of animals?
In addition, there is the cost factor. A few weeks ago, I flew to California to visit a nephew in Santa Monica, to go to see paintings in area museums, and to scout for possible painting sites.

Look at this photograph of a salt marsh near Malibu:

I fell in love with it. Within an instant, I transformed it into a subject and felt that mixture of interest, excitement, and impatience to start painting. Then I thought about what it would cost me to return: airfare, about $600; rental car, $284; hotel, $2200; restaurants, c. $500—all together, a small fortune. Add to that its location: a long walk partly on a wooden walkway, then over sand; no shade; no ocean breeze due to its configuration. I would not last very long in the intense hot sun, even with an umbrella, and even at dawn. In addition, if I drove there from anywhere close by, I would struggle with the snarl of traffic on legendary Route 1, the Pacific Highway. 
I ruled it out.

As I think back to my many painting trips (from Key West, Florida, to Newfoundland, Canada, on the east coast; to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the Canadian Rockies; to France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Holland), I have spent years searching for new visual experiences to juice my creative spirit. 

However, dispiriting events can conspire to test the strongest drive: in Nova Scotia, near Peggy’s Cove, I tried to paint in West Dover, a small fishing village, and relentless fog, day after day, tortured me. In a campground near Gloucester, MA, I lived in a tent with my husband, three kids and a dog, when a hurricane threatened a direct hit, and we had to pack up and go home, my painting unfinished. I have had paintings blow over from a gust of unexpected wind and land face down in sand. I have persevered in numb chilling cold; I have traveled to Saint John’s, Newfoundland, could not find a subject I liked, and came home defeated.

I could go on listing the non-cooperation of nature or spirit. However, people also can get in the way.
In 1892, Renoir wrote a letter to Berthe Morisot. He said, “Landscape is becoming more and more of a torture for me, all the more because it’s a duty; evidently it is the only way to gain some understanding of one’s métier, but I no longer can plant myself out of doors like a street entertainer.” (Rouart 1950, p. 170)
I know how he felt.

In 2007, I painted a picture at Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, and each day I found myself surrounded by curious tourists. Some asked to watch; others asked to take my picture; others asked to stand next to me while someone else took our picture; others asked me to explain what I was doing.

In that same location, gnats swarmed all over me and stuck to my painting.
I persevered.

Because despite all the interruptions and the gnats, I made this picture:

Bauman, Lake Louise, 2007, Private Collection

Before we study it, here is a photograph of my subject and a photograph of me painting the picture:

If you react as I do, you are thinking: how did she make that painting from that subject?

I’ve discussed the answer to this question in a previous post, What Dreams May Come.

Click on the title if you wish to review how an artist transforms a subject into picture.
For now, let’s look at the picture upside down:

1. The picture divides into 4 quadrants, demarcated by an X-shaped composition

2. Mostly vertical multi-colorful bands that were pine trees and/or reflections build a series of decorative motifs.

3. The now bottom pyramidal quadrant (that was snow covered mountain) recedes slightly.

4. The two side quadrants push forward.

5. The now top V-shaped quadrant (that was the lake) displays a rich, cool series of greens, blues, and lavenders. This unit slides back in space while the pyramidal dock and red dome-shaped rowboats on it move forward and hang, suspended, in the foreground plane.

6. Within each quadrant rhythms of stripes and bands move back and forth in space reinforcing the picture idea.

Simply put, at my first interested look, I converted a much photographed tourist attraction into a decorative visual idea. 

Despite the cold, the gnats, and the tourists, the working out of my idea as I made my picture produced such an intense, concentrated focus, I felt totally transported to, and a part of, the new color world I created.

I suspect Renoir felt a similar aesthetic charge as he made Paysage des Collettes, a painting based on a subject he encountered in his Cagnes garden.

Here is a photograph I took of his subject when I visited Renoir’s farmhouse in 2011:

Here is the plaque that marks the spot Renoir worked on the painting:

Here is the painting:

Renoir, Paysage des Collettes, 1910, Musée Renoir

I urge you to study this painting and make your own list of what Renoir did to and with his subject. I assume you agree that there is very little in the photograph that predicts the outcome—the painting. The visual idea revealed in the painting crystalized for Renoir because of his background, interest, and sensitivity. 

Here is another example, a tree in Vence used by Soutine for seven different pictures. 

In 2011, I took this photograph of the tree:

Here is a photograph of the plaque marking the spot Soutine made the painting:

Here is one of the paintings Soutine made using the tree as his subject:

Soutine, Tree of Vence, c. 1929, Private Collection

All through the Nice area you can find plaques marking the locations where Renoir, Soutine, Modigliani, Derain, Cross, and others made their pictures. You also can do this in Aix where Cézanne lived and worked; you can do it in Arles and Saint-Remy and many other areas in France where van Gogh worked. Usually titled “Walking in the Footsteps of….,” the plaques mark areas where each artist stood and made pictures. And you can then compare the exact subject (somewhat degraded over time by the encroachment of houses, growing trees, and undergrowth) with the resulting painting.

Yet, interesting as it is, it does not answer my original question: why do we do it? 

I do it because nature provides “visual gifts.” These gifts arrive unbidden and unexpected—a certain slant of light or a particular color. When I feel particularly dull, when the voice in my head tells me I have no idea what I am doing; when I am in the muddle (a term coined by many writers describing the creative process as having a “beginning, a muddle, and an end”), I mostly go on faith—and sometimes something wonderful happens—a breeze turns leaves just the way I need them, a cloud fills a blank space in the sky area of my picture and is just the right shape, or, in Lewes, Delaware, a fisherman sits down on his overturned bucket and throws his line in the water at the exact spot on the dock I need a color shape for my picture. 

Here is the picture:

Bauman, Fishing in the Lewes Canal, 1985, Private Collection
As it turned out, my fisherman, feeling my eyes on him for several hours, stopped to talk to me. His name was Jim Sills and, a few years later, he was elected mayor of Wilmington. For almost 30 years, we both enjoyed telling this story.

Nature provides “visual gifts” that both give me ideas and teach me how to see, and working directly from nature is my way of saying thank you for the beauty and visual suggestions it provides for me to use. 

For example, here is a Renoir painting that captures the sparkle of sunlight:

Renoir, In Brittany, 1886, Barnes

Here is a cropped image of the shrubs on the left:

Here is a photograph of Winterthur in late March. The trees shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight, and I would not have stopped to enjoy them if I had not known Renoir’s work.

In March, I shot this photograph of the March Bank at Winterthur. It caught my eye because I knew the van Gogh painting, Undergrowth. When I spotted the March Bank, I thought, “Van Gogh would have loved this.”

Here are the two pictures:

  Van Gogh, Undergrowth, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

In a letter written to Emile Bernard in 1905, Cézanne sums it up this way:

“The Louvre is the book in which we learn to read. We must not, however, be satisfied with retaining the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors.
Let us go forth to study beautiful nature, let us try to free our minds from them, let us strive to express ourselves according to our personal temperaments.
Time and reflection, moreover, little by little modify our vision, and at last comprehension comes to us.”


  1. I so enjoyed your paintings and commentary. Wow! Love the Lake Louise painting and the insight in talking about art.

  2. I am happy to know you enjoyed reading this post. Many of my readers are painters, and I am wondering how they feel about painting outside. Please let us know!