Creature Comfort

One of the scariest experiences for any budding artist is sketching and painting outside. This is it – usually closeted creatures, so shy that not even our families can see us working – we are now required to go outside. Not only that, but we have to paint in plain view of complete strangers, to be completely and utterly exposed, vulnerable to possible sneers of contempt and nasty comments of passers by.

From the very beginning, I want to tell you you’re wrong. People are kind and if they don’t think your drawing or painting is good, they will just pass you by. Also, don’t think that if you don’t receive a compliment from every single one, your artwork is rubbish. People are also very aware that you need your space, your concentration and more often than not, they will chose not to break it, even if they would like to tell you how much they love what you do.

I used to believe I will be utterly trashed by strangers while painting outside – that my drawings would be proved wrong, out of perspective, too sketchy or God knows what. After few very terrifying sessions, I got used to it and now I  really couldn’t care less of what one thinks about my artwork. When I am outside, I only focus on my subject.

But this is something most of you know (if would still have questions like ‘how did you actually crushed the self-consciousness?’ let me know). My problem with painting plein-air (or out with the elements) is the lack of basic comfort. I might be just lazy, but for me comfort is an almost guarantee that my painting will turn out good.

Is very frustrating because I dream about going out and about with a box of paints and just painting to my heart’s content – there’s nothing like it and this is one the first reasons why I started painting. When photography wasn’t enough anymore.

I had to devise a set-up that would ensure my plein-air painting success. I can’t paint standing (at least not for long), so I would need a chair. My easel -originally created on a photo tripod, now I have a Winsor&Newton one (still prefer the hobby-crafted one, the ‘professional’ one just doesn’t work for me). That’s two bags. Now for the paints – I work with three different sets of St Petersburg ‘White Nights’ watercolour pans (my own selection of colours) so I would need at least two of them (each of 24 colours). I also use some various tube paints – so I would need my paint box and a separate palette. Then I would need some space to have them all besides me – bought a plastic folding chair. It’s tiny but does the job, providing me with about 15% of my ideal space requirements. Water – have a plastic beaker with me from the beginning, and a bottle with about 1 litre of clean water. These together with the paints, brushes (about 4 of them), paper towels, masking tape, my coffee (as indispensable as the paints) go in my backpack. My board and paper, table and chair in a separate canvas shoulder bag and another bag for my carry-on easel. Easy enough you might say. Yes, I don’t bend over carrying it, but I look like a donkey with an oversized charge and after an hour or so, I found that my legs tend to bend at unusual angles.

And when I finally, finally find my spot? I spend at least another 15min to set everything up, to realise that either I forgot something essential or that I need to learn some serious joggling because I cannot possibly deal with three different palettes on a tiny table that barely supports one (risking the precious water in my beaker). Somehow I reach a stasis when I just paint. For about 10min because I have to stand. The small folding chairs are atrocious and give me a back pain. Then I paint some more – if I am lucky, I get almost to the end and I am thinking ‘Just a bit more patience, don’t hurry because you know how bad you’re messing up when you hurry needlessly’. Then I have to pee. And that’s the end of the show from me. Because, as many of you know, is gorgeous to paint out in the wild nature, but there are not many toilets around there. (I am honestly welcome ideas on this subject from experienced plein air painters)

Yesterday I painted in the gorgeous Hampstead Heath park (more like a nature reserve) in London. Had to rush my leaving for the above mentioned reason although thankfully, with a finished painting. Got everything on me and mentally checked for toilet spots and happily trotted towards one.

For those of you who don’t know, Hampstead Heath is an park of 790 acres of  ancient forest, ponds and rambling, hilly nature and the bottom line is that I got lost. I walked/climbed with my 10-15 kilos charge for about one and a half hour and almost shamed myself. When I reached the toilets I almost cried. I won’t bother you with details of how I negotiated my bags in the tiny cubbicle, I’ll leave that to your imagination.

When I finally exited the park I could hardly walk and today is no exaggeration to say that I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. And my painting? I could do so much better at home, in my favourite chair! See for yourself:

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So, where are we then? It’s clear I need a better setup, because I just love to paint outside. But is it worth it, if the end result is not satisfying? As artists, do we really need to do this even if we deliver poor quality artwork or is better to stay in our studios and do what we know best? It’s a difficult choice, but I would really want to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!