Sunday, September 21, 2014

En Plein Air

just spent a spectacular sunny September weekend at Police Outpost Park, on the border of Alberta and Montana. On Saturday afternoon, I hiked to a viewpoint along the trail and painted on location. I had to carry my gear about a kilometre. I started out at 3:00, and was back at our campsite by 8:00 when the sun went down. So after subtracting the time taken for hiking, and setting up and taking down, I think I spent about 4 hours drawing and then painting. I completed a 14x18 en plein air painting.

This was my setup. I had remembered this handy little bench along the trail from previous hikes.

This was the scene that I painted. I was looking out over fields and an pond towards Chief Mountain. The autumn colours were brilliant. This photo does not represent the colours well as I was looking towards the sun. The mountain was just a hazy silhouette against the bright sky. The sun passed across the sky to the right and was setting over the mountains in the west by the time I finished the painting.

This photo shows the painting just after I had blocked in the main shapes and colour areas. I was painting on a birch panel with oils. I usually paint on stretched canvas or linen, and I found it hard to work on the panel. It seemed to suck up the moisture of the paint too much. When I began laying on the pale blue wash for the sky, the thinned paint went blotchy, so I ended up blocking in with much thicker paint than usual. Also, when I used unthinned paint, my brush became dry after a short stroke. So I struggled with the consistency or viscosity of the paint throughout this experience. 

I had prepared the panel with two coats of shellac, followed by a ground of white alkyd paint. I have been told that artists do not use shellac anymore as a base on panels - that it is an old-fashioned approach - but that is how I was taught to do it many years ago. I would like to hear advice from others on how you prepare panels for oil painting. No doubt, the wind and sun also contributed to the problems with paint consistency.

Anyways, I had great fun painting this scene. Most of the time I paint indoors. I had really been wanting to get out on location and paint. My excuse was that I couldn't find my old telescoping portable easel. I painted one panel outside last summer by setting up a table, and propping my panel against a box on the table. That didn't work well once the wind came up! I finally went a bought a new lightweight easel, and this was my first time using it. 

Here is the final painting. I took the photo with my phone, so the colours are not very accurate. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Misery Lens

We've all been there at one time or another. It is that terrible place of mind where you become trapped inside a sandstorm of raging hurt or anger, or maybe inside the frozen grey ice of resentment and alienation. You look out at those who have wronged you through a lens of misery, and everything you see appears ugly, ill-fitting, and as miserable as you feel. In fact, the misery is more than a lens on the eyes. It is a stench that envelopes you and taints everything that you come near.

Your body and mind go with your emotions to that unpleasant place and they all end up swirling around together. Your teeth are clenched, jaw aching, and no matter how many times you notice them and open your mouth and try to relax your face, a few minutes later the teeth are clenched again. Your neck and upper back are so tight that they are going into spasms, and you have a persistent headache that ranges from a dull ache to blinding pain. You lose faith in your ability to do basic simple things, like say hello to people, or do a familiar task.

And all the while the squirrel in the brain is on a frantic treadmill, trying to analyze the crisis you find yourself in. You lay out the facts and possible interpretations over and over again. There is an occasional insight or moment of clarity, and then you plunge into another round of rehashing the newly aligned facts, and you plot and compare courses of action. You can't step away from it. The internal conversation distracts you from everything else, and keeps you awake at night. You become exhausted.

You didn't get stuck behind the misery lens randomly. Some situation drew you into the internal storm. The situation was so terrible, so critical, that your very survival felt threatened. You failed a course. You were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused. Your spouse left you or threatened to leave you. Your boss or teacher humiliated you in front of others. Someone cheated you or mocked you behind your back and you found out. Someone close to you died. You made a serious error at work that hurt someone or caused a project to fail. You reached age fifty, still single and childless, and wondered about your own worth. You got cancer. 

The stew of emotions, thoughts and physical reactions are by-products of the struggle to cope with a threatening situation. But they are so all-encompassing that they throw up a smokescreen, a grey lens that distorts perception. But in the middle of it, the perceptions don't seem distorted; they seem real, true, and very intense. I know this because this has happened to me more than once. In retrospect, it is really easy to notice that the angry blaming thoughts and hurt feelings were leading me to conclusions that, afterwards, seemed somewhat twisted, or even ludicrous. But in the middle of it, that clarity and distance is hard to achieve.

Here are some ways through it that have worked for me. I remind myself that it is a process or coping phase and it will pass. I will get through it. Usually I come out the other end with a plan. 

I do things that help me step away from my obsessive brooding thoughts and feelings - things that quiet the brain. For me what works well are: getting out into nature; exercise; journalling; talking to a trusted friend or family member (I have to ignore the voice in my head that tries to dissuade me by saying that no one understands or wants to listen); counselling; painting; cooking; yoga; skiing; reading an interesting upbeat book; physical closeness with a loved one; engaging with others and focusing on them, not me; and listening to speakers on positive themes such as creativity and leadership (e.g., TED talks). 

Ultimately what pulls me out of the bog of misery it is figuring out what steps I need to take to address the problem that I am facing, and then actually taking action. Maybe it involves finding the courage to confront someone, or to do a task that I am afraid of, or to own up to my mistake. Maybe it means recognizing that a certain problem is not something that I can or ought to deal with, and giving myself permission to step away from it. Sometimes it involves finding little moments of peace and joy to help me get through each day while I wait for time to do its healing work. 

There always is a solution, but it is seldom obvious through the misery lens. Typically, once the misery lens falls away from my eyes, I can hardly remember what I was so riled up about and why it seemed so very important.