Plein Air Painting

The Alpine Fellowship & Thoughts on Art / Life Balance

Last September I traveled to Switzerland as part of the Alpine Fellowship. Inaugurated in 2013, the fellowship was created by my former teacher, the artist Alan Lawson, bringing together figurative artists and philosophers to discuss beauty and the way in which we work, live, and experience the world. Set in the majestic beauty of the Alps, I along with five other fellows spent three weeks painting nature and receiving lectures by various resident artists and visiting philosophers. The entire experience was filmed by friend and artist/filmmaker Basilio De San Juan Guerrero. We were left to our own devices to paint anything we wanted, whenever we wanted. I still feel as if I cannot fully comprehend and tie a bow around my experience in the Alps; it feels so fragmentary and sensory.

Alan spoke once of the difference between appreciating nature from a distance or a picture and experiencing it firsthand. While a picture of an apple tree can be lovely and beautiful, sitting underneath an apple tree is not always pleasant. With insects, changing temperature, or even apples falling on your head, it can be uncomfortable. There exists a harsh beauty. Part of the purpose of the fellowship was to slow down our pace of life and immerse ourselves in this world - to fully experience it, contemplate it, and thus paint it. 

I stayed quite trapped in my own head much of the time. I felt in a constant battle with myself to "get on with it and paint" and to really feel and experience my surroundings on a deep level. It seems like the two would go hand in hand, but quite often the opposite is true. I suppose that I didn't quite trust that giving myself the space to truly feel and experience this atmosphere and myself in it that I would actually make a painting. (This is still a concern). My favorite memory is finally saying fuck it to this entire mental drama and taking a long walk into the woods alone one evening at dusk, communing with myself and nature, completely at peace. Maybe this isn't as much of a problem for some, but it can be so easy to stay in a goal and task driven state (even or especially while painting) rather than experiencing the awe or beauty or stillness of life. 

Many of these issues are residual from school - the Academy. The Florence Academy of Art (and I speak only of the drawing & painting program in Florence) is the most masculine environment I have ever experienced. It is described by many, quite accurately, as boot camp. It's specific methodology ultimately calls for working in a very intense, linear, repetitive way. But I can't/don't/won't exist in that fashion. I work in a very unpredictable, cyclical, and intuitive way (as is the feminine principle). To others this is seen as erratic and lazy, and I have definitely struggled with being seen as such and "not taking my art seriously" or having a "compromised work ethic." Perhaps I do - but rather, I have decided that this is utter bullshit and choose to honor this about myself. I value my mental, physical, and emotional health, and I live in a way which supports these things - healthy food, exercise, at least 8 hours of sleep, personal fulfillment, community engagement, and relationship. Art is so often segregated from experience, existing as a sole thing that exists independently from every other aspect of life, which could not be further from the truth. There is an unspoken belief that by "focusing only on the art," it will speak volumes and expand and grow. In certain ways, this is true. But all the values I previously mentioned support my ability to create art for the rest of my life, and to enjoy it. Not to mention the fact that it gives life and depth to the art itself, and connects me with intuition and curiosity - all of the intangible things that sparked my desire to make art to begin with.

Zach Kramer, a resident artist from the Fellowship, spoke often about the way he creates art having everything to do with how he wants to live his life - that the process reflects the kind of life experiences he wants to have. This sounds simple enough, but it can be easy to focus only on some imagined ideal of a finished product, doing whatever it takes to get there, rather than savouring and giving equal attention to the process itself. What do you want the process and your daily experience to look and feel like? The product and process can be so utterly divorced from each other, rather than the two being one and the same. Zach and his wife, Kristin truly seem to embody this - living a quiet life in the Swedish forest, growing their own food, him painting as she writes. He reminds me of Andrew Wyeth in embodying his art on such a fundamental level. I aspire to my own version of this, whatever that may be. I only know it involves lots of yoga, nature, community, relationship, and joy. This idea has stuck with me perhaps more than anything else from my entire experience in Switzerland. And of course the nature, the beautiful nature!

Alas, here are several paintings I created whilst in Switzerland.

Lavey-Village, 22x16 cm, Oil on Canvas, 2013.

Lavey-Village Valley, Oil on Canvas, 2013.

Wandering Cows, 22x16 cm, Oil on Canvas, 2013.

Ben & two cups of tea, naturally. Oil on Canvas. 2013.

Cow Sketch. Oil on Canvas. 2013.

Before the Storm, Oil on Canvas, 2013.

The Old House, Oil on Canvas, 2013.

Hudson Valley

High Valley, Oil on Canvas, 2012.

I have recently arrived back in Italy, school has begun, and I am into the full swing of things. I thought I'd post some of the art I made while being back in upstate New York for the summer. I did a fair amount of plein air painting. My favorite way to experience nature is to be sitting in silence with it (as opposed to moving or hiking through it) and to be able to paint this experience and create something from that is a blessing. I love it. I experienced some beautiful places this summer. The last painting I did of the summer was a particularly memorable experience painted at High Valley in Clinton Corners. It  is the home to one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Cunningham, and she allowed me to paint on her property just at the change of the season to fall. It was such a peaceful piece of earth and the people there as well seem so in communion with it, swimming nude through the lake as I painted and so forth. There is something so magical about Clinton Corners and I have often found myself somehow driving through and getting lost, mesmerized by the trees changing colors (seriously one of the most beautiful places in the world to experience fall foliage). Anyway, I also began a charcoal and white chalk portrait of my Grandpa. I didn't get many sittings in with him and it is unfinished, but you can get the gist of it.

Noxon, Oil on Canvas, 2012.

Lawrence Farm, Oil on Canvas, 2012.

Peach Hill, Oil on Canvas, 2012.

Vanderbilt, Oil on Linen, 2012.

Poppy, Charcoal & White Chalk, 2012.

I was very inspired by Andrew Wyeth this summer and took a tour of his studio at the Brandywine Museum over the summer. I always had a book of his next to me while working on this portrait of my grandpa at his kitchen table with the light coming through the window. Andrew Wyeth was a master of depicting light and light cast on form. I decided to do a more formal portrait of my Grandpa this summer as opposed to the quick sketches I always find myself doing of him. He has always been one of my favorite subjects. I approached it initially as a formal commission with the idea of a specific end in mind, being very obsessive, trying to plan everything and think about it all too much. When I plan things too much I don't ever seem to do actually do them, which is what happened with this portrait. (We also had a habit of going to the diner before beginning a drawing session which may have not been the best precursor to me wanting to draw or having the energy for it...) During the last week of the summer, upon realizing I had barely touched the drawing I did about 90 percent of it in our last sitting. It is unfinished and I would have loved to keep working with it but this is what I have and the basic idea is there.

Tuscan Plein Air Painting

The following is some plein air painting I did during my third trimester. It was all done in a workshop I took with three of our FAA instructors - Daniela Astone, Zach Kramer, and Per Elof Nilsson Ricklund, lasting three weekends during May and June.

We went to three sites around Florence - Due Strade - property on the outskirts of Florence with beautiful views of mountains & hills, Stibbert Park - a park attached to a museum with smaller more intimate scenes & quirky constructs such as Egyptian temples, and alongside the Arno river with a view of the city. In our time alongside the Arno (during the final weekend) I simply drew. Most of the paintings below take place at the property I first mentioned. I did two paintings a day that weekend and completely overspent my energy, rising at 6 and getting home between 7 and 9. I learned the lesson the following weekend in school to conserve my energy a bit... During the time at Stibbert Park I used a limited palette consisting of ivory black, vermillion, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, and titanium white. (My normal palette for landscape painting would be ivory black, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, (possibly) cerulean blue, alizarin crimson, cadmium red, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, and titanium white.) It was a completely backwards method of thinking for me. Rather than using higher chroma colors and muting them, we used muted colors (except for the cad yellow) and made them more chromatic in the ways we mixed them and related them with each other. I quite possibly learned more from this than anything else on the course. It surely taught me to appreciate color (and value) more! All in all, a great experience.

Stibbert Park

Lovely half box french easel purchased from a graduating student for just 25 euros! Though absolutely insane to carry through Florence with a backpack full of materials and canvases… all on my bike!