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Why I Paint From Life

"Fishing on the Seine"
12 March 2002 — Essentially, there are three ways to make a painting: from memory, from reference material such as sketches, studies and photographs, and from life. Lots of painters combine these three approaches in various ways to fashion techniques uniquely their own. I like to work from life. Always have. Be it plein air, interiors, still life, figure compositions or night painting, confronting the real thing seems to be the only way I can breathe life into a picture.

I did my first plein air painting in the backyard of a boarding house in Los Angeles in 1956. Just last week I sat on a bench and painted a small oil of a Central Park hot dog vendor. Having gone to school in California at a time when location painting - especially in watercolor - was at it's zenith, I couldn't help getting caught up in the process. Even moving back home to the comparatively colorless vistas of suburban New York and Connecticut failed to dampen my enthusiasm for working from life. I was hooked. In the traditional sense, I can't really call myself a plein air painter. According to Webster's dictionary, plein air reads: (French, open air) !: of or related to painting in outdoor daylight. 2: of or relating to a branch of impressionism that attempts to represent outdoor light and air.

I'm not a purist about painting under natural light. Candles, street lamps, fluorescent or neon lights all have a place in my imagery. I also like to occasionally paint lines around things. Or, if a subject has a particularly interesting shape, I'll flatten the form to empathize the silhouette. Subject wise, I probably revel more in the real and raw of a grungy harbor or congested back street than placid expanses of flower covered hills and snow tipped mountains. But who needs categories? Whether you call yourself an impressionist, realist, luminist, tonalist of fauve, it's the quality of life, energy and inventiveness that validates a picture.

It's taken me years to acquire a broad enough perspective on painting to steer through the mazes of options and pitfalls working from life can present. It comes down to interpreting what you see onto a canvas. The tough part however, is comprehending that a canvas can never be an open window into reality. It's a flat piece of canvas with brush loads of colors piled on top and unless you arrange those colors into some kind of order or design, no matter how much you think you're painting what you see, the viewer won't be convinced because it's simply impossible to transform canvas and paint into three dimensional reality. A picture can only remain an artistic interpretation. The word "artistic" is key here because this is where the order and design come in.

Suppose two artists paint a cow grazing in front of a barn. One paints every spot on the cow's hide perfectly. Each bale of hay is in exactly the right place and every piece of glass in each window of the barn is counted twice to make sure the number of panes tally up. The other painter not only simplifies the spots on the cow, but paints in a non-existent window to better silhouette the animals interestingly shaped rump. Both artists paint the barn red. But the second paints the bales of hay alongside more greenish, to better compliment the red of the barn, while the first painter sticks to the true, putty-like hue of the straw. Both paintings are now framed and exhibited. Someone walks up to the first painting and tells the artist it looks pretty convincing but if he could see the real cow and barn he could tell a lot better how accurate the picture was. Someone approaches the second artist, studies his work and comments "I like your painting." There's no talk of accuracy or counting window panes. Simply "I like your painting." The lesson is, no matter how carefully you copy what you see, unless it's selectively edited, the work can't help but remain an incomplete statement. When filtered through an artful arrangement of shapes and colors, however a picture ceases to try and mimic reality. Instead it becomes an independent construction. In other words, a PAINTING of a cow and a barn rather than an imitation.

A lot of years have gone by since I stood under that blue California sky and struggled to paint my first landscape. And not once have I doubted or regretted making it a lifetime pursuit. Like most of my days, tomorrow is an unknown quantity. I may go outdoors to paint. If it's cold or snowy, I'll work in my van. Or, my sweetheart Peg may have plopped some flowers in a coffee can on the kitchen table that catches the morning light at just the right angle. The painting on the cover of my last book came about exactly that way. However it goes, there's sure to be some adventure.

The future? New times bring new subjects and the rosy glow of the setting sun can be just as enchanting on a kit banking a corner on a skateboard as it was when Sorolla painted his picturesque oxen pulling sailboats onto a beach in Spain. Atmospheric vistas, flower-filled courtyards and adorable children splashing in tidal pools will probably always find a place in the genre of painting from life. But to really count as an important avenue of expression in an increasingly complex world, there also has to be a place for more innovative, contemporary themes. They could be nature based, as in many of Fairfield Porter's fresh solutions to landscape, or glaringly lit interiors like Wayne Thibaud's gaudy yet irresistible line up of banana cream pies. Whatever the subject, I think painters will always feel the importance of painting from life and getting rained on, sunburned and tricked-up by fast changing effects. But also tasting the exhilaration of seeing a fresh bunch of shapes and colors come alive on a canvas. And for me, that's what it's all about.

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