Thursday, February 8, 2018

Yesterday (Something old) vs Today (Something new)

So often we reject looking back as being a negative, and throw about derisive platitudes such as, "You can't live in the past." While that is true for many things, you will discover that in most human endeavours and activities, it can be readily seen that repetition over many failed attempts actually can lead to a superior  process and result.

As a plein air advocate for most of my painting career, I prided myself upon creating a number of paintings... start to finish... on each and every outing. I must admit that I felt a sense of failure if I didn't fulfill that 2-3 finished works result. Even size didn't enter into the formula. I often brought back one or two larger scale paintings.

Looking back on the practice now, I realize that the strategy offered both pluses... and minuses. On the plus side, I learned how to make decisions rapidly and to accelerate the speed of my brushwork. This did indeed result in "loose and painterly" results... which were the "go words" in the painting world at that time.

All the "how to" books of a generation of artists preached and pitched that approach religiously. Galleries chimed in using it to ramp up their sales and interest in specific members of their stable of artists. It reached cult proportions in the seventies and eighties.

On the minus side... many dashed off works lacked a full sense of understanding and cohesion... if one looked carefully and honestly at the works. Glaring mistakes in tonality, composition and lighting often diminished the overall effect and quality of the work greatly.

Something Old.... from Then

In the west corner of my studio space sits a number of what I considered were derailed plein air train wrecks. Not everything that we paint should find its way to the wall immediately, or in some cases never!

Lately, I most often set a new work aside for a period of time and glance at it occasionally... hoping to discover a glaring weakness needing resolution ... or a previously missed redeeming feature.

In years gone by such time for reflection was rarely, if ever was possible. When I was producing work for sometimes up to eleven well-respected galleries across Canada, the need for a constant flow of work to send off to satisfy the demands imposed often exceeded or pushed hard upon my ability to deliver.

Hence time became the governing factor an a focus upon quality more often than not took a back seat. Paintings were often barely dry and some, in my opinion today were even "weak-kneed" when they were shipped to galleries.

Today, I regret that reality greatly. However, it was a time.. when being a "market painter" was essential to maintain a livelihood and became the norm in the art business really. Only a few of the older and better established artists enjoyed a sense of free agency and personal control over their work.

My only solace today, lies in the fact that my collectors then were very much aware of my "emerging artist" status and that they felt that they were receiving decent dollar value for my work and that my work met the criteria they themselves decided upon to purchase and form collections of my work.

I thought it might perhaps be an interesting exercise to take one "failed" sketch from back then and to work it up from memory only... making use of the a mix of remembrances and feelings about the scene.

This exercise might highlight my growing belief that though plein air provides a certain freshness and dash... it as well contains areas that should be reconsidered and built upon to create even stronger landscapes.

Plein air painting presents a great opportunity to learn directly from the subject. Perhaps if one is fortunate as I was, you might find mentor(s) willing to share their experience and knowledge. The process offers a wonderfully stimulating classroom to learn about your own painting abilities and interests.                .

Last Light, Gould Lake - oil on canvas 11 x 14 inches

This sketch was produced back in 1996, a time when my paintings were mostly small sketches and completed "in one go." Most were signed right there on location... or rubbed off immediately if painfully bad. I specifically remember this scene out on the Gould Lake Road, north of Kingston. My painting companion and I had decided to stop at this site... have a quick bite of lunch and a coffee before beginning to paint. What was so impressive and attracted my interest was the intensely warm light and shadow interplay. It was truly a golden moment!

We were no more than into the actual painting process when that light disappeared completely for the rest of the afternoon. It never did return... nor did I "catch" the spirit and the elusive golden lighting effect that had drawn me to this landscape in the first place. Deflating!

Good structure... and compositional elements. BUT... where's the light??? A very flat and two dimensional space that lacks drama and verges totally upon very ordinary. The whole raison d'etre for making the painting in the first place was lost in translation. It was, at most a poor copy or representation for what was there.

Something New... from the Now

This week, I decided to use my memory of the day and experience to revisit the past. For the sake of a better word... let's call the process "Imagineering"...

I spent an afternoon leisurely searching for areas of the painting to introduce stronger light and colour. At first, it was difficult to let go of the past. The fear for disturbing what had been the recording of a long lost moment in my life was at first disconcerting. As new passages revealed improvement that was pleasing and stronger light, the momentum to complete the exercise grew quickly.

Here is the final take on the result of this experiment. What do you think?

I wonder... Let me know how you feel.

Note additional elements added to foreground. Every "newbie" painter... whether painting from digital images, or en plein air encounters difficulty with the foreground area. Many times, as seen in the first version... the road or water simply sweeps unceremoniously forward engulfing the immediate front area of the painting with... nothingness.

Here in the final edition, the combination of light and shadow plus the addition of the dark puddle creates something to stop the eye... and to make a statement which adds to the composition.

Just some food for thought... from one "old(er) painter passing through." Maybe... an idea to think about in your own work!

Much Joy... Rich Blessings and Good Painting... to ALL!!


  1. I actually liked the first version, Bruce, but can see that the additions to the second version give it more life and spark and visual interest all around. I like the large puddle and the reddish color leading my eye to that curve in the road and beyond :) We all grow and change as we continue making art - some fall by the wayside and some of us keep on struggling with ups and downs. Here's wishing you many bright, high painting days :)

  2. Good afternoon Rhonda!... Thank for taking the time to visit and to share such interesting and perceptive comments! I totally share your views that both paintings have their individual strengths and realities... though differing in objectives and outcomes.

    The greyness of a sunless winter day to me has its own muted beauty creating a mood and sense of stillness. What caused me to want to change that in this sketch was that the magical quality of the light and colour that I totally lost on that day. I always felt cheated in a way. I guess this was me ... "getting even"... applying my artist's licence HA!HA!

    It is the challenge to adapt and to grow beyond simply regurgitating on to the canvas what is laid out before us. Pure joy occurs for me... when I take charge of "creation" fully... in that blank space at least. HA HA!

    Wishing you many bright painting days in 2018 full of Joy and Peace Rhonda!

    Warmest regards,

  3. I really like the first painting Bruce. It has such a freshness and most of all though it may sound strange, I actually feel as if I am there! So strong was that feeling that I had to blink to tell myself I was sitting comfortably at home on a winter's evening gazing at a painting you did back in 96! While the new painting is beautifully and skillfully painted to me personally I felt a kind of quiet darkness. Just me I guess being silly! But most of all I love that idea of revisiting the past like that. Well done my friend you are a star!

  4. Good evening Lass!... Thank you for dropping by and for sharing your feelings and reactions to the two versions of the same landscape. I had truly hoped for varied responses and for the very valid observations that you have made here in your comments.

    The value of plein air work is actually what you suggest. It captures the very essence of the moment... if it is portrayed directly as it appears. However... one of the drawbacks is that the lighting conditions are fleeting at the best painting times in the day- late evening and very early morning. They are do dramatic... but elusive.

    I tried in my second run to draw upon my memories of the more dramatic scene late in the day to try and recapture some of that magical light and I believe that I was successful in many ways.

    We make paintings to be responded to... we hope. Your responses are hardly "silly" and I am always pleased that you come to share them here on my blog. Thank you for your presence and positive criticism! I greatly value both!

    As of late, the idea of revisiting the past has become a much stronger element in my thinking... and my painting... and will continue to explore and revisit that source of stored information again and again in the future. So stay tuned...

    Thank you for your well meant compliment at the conclusion Caroline... but like you... I am "just a simple painter ... passing through." The truth be told... my sweet Allison was, and will always be the star in the Sherman constellation! I miss her so!

    Rich Blessings... Good Painting and Good Health!
    Warmest regards,

  5. So totally different! I liked the muted colouring and tones of the first version, especially in the background and central trees and I much prefer the new foreground. The central trees and the darker section to right make me feel a little hemmed in and very small....they seem a little imposing like they are standing guard from what is around the bend - and I really, really want to see what is around the bend.

    You have shown that painting from memory can be a really worthwhile exercise.

    It's interesting to go back to older work and ideas with fresh eyes. I am finding that ideas I had years ago but didn't have the skills at the time to do justice I can start to work through now I have a bit more experience. Hopefully I can do them more justice now maybe I will have to wait a bit longer ;o) It's inspiring to me to see that others revisit too. Thank you for sharing your process and thoughts.

  6. Hi Lisa!... Thanks for visiting again and for sharing your valuable insights and very valid critique.

    The plein air "moment" is always captured best and expressed more accurately and intimately at the source and in its proper time. But as you have noted... that as artists we are limited at every stage by our limited knowledge and experience handling our mediums.

    Having the courage to revisit and view the older works with new insights can offer wonderful opportunities for growth... understanding and new directions for future work.

    Dealing with "in-your-face" foregrounds is very challenging for the new artist. That part of the exercise was worth the doing. The fact that it inspires/encourages you to do the same is worth the risks!

    Thanks again for your presence and honesty Lisa! I value both!

    Warmest regards... and Good Painting!