Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Plein air along the Animas, and facing fears

Sunday's plein air painting, from nearby Santa Rita Park...

Perins Peak and the Riverbank
9x12 inches - pastel on Artagain
© S. Johnson
What does plein air painting have to do with facing one's fears, and the relevance with this painting, you ask?  At first glance, not much.  In fact, I wouldn't have given it much thought save for a couple of coincidental circumstances that got me thinking about it and how it relates to what we do as artists, and how it all does tie together.

I mentioned in a recent post about an agenda I have that I feel necessitates as much on location painting as possible, and I didn't have time to post about it then, but last week, I bit the bullet, so to speak, and registered for the Plein Air Moab '11 event.  This is both exciting and a bit daunting - I have never been to a plein air event, let alone participated in one.  In fact, this is really the first season I've done any appreciable landscape paintings on location, so it's not like I have the years of experience that probably most participants will have.   But, I really groove out on painting on location, and with the landscape of the southern Utah canyon country being my favorite, I really wanted to give it a go.  The fact it's not an invitational event made that possible.

For various logistical reasons, I'm going by myself and am planning on heading up early Tuesday and staying through Saturday until paintings can be released.  Part of what I hope to participate in is at least one of the quick draw events.  For those not familiar, a quick draw paint-out is usually at a predetermined location, and artists have 90 minutes to complete a painting, which goes immediately on display and into the competition - talk about performance pressure!

While painting with the PAP4C group on Saturday, I inquired if anyone there was planning on attending.  No one present was.  One of the oil painters, whose name I don't remember, said she can only handle one plein air event a year, and then explained that she gets very anxious participating in the quick draw events, and because of nerves, won't drink coffee that morning. I honestly hadn't given that any thought as a possibility for myself, so I found it really interesting!

The coincidental aspect of her comment is that I happen to be reading a book from our library right now on that very subject, by Taylor Clark - Nerve:  Poise under pressure, serenity under stress, and the brave new science of fear and cool.  You can read reviews and more about it HERE.  I'm finding it an absolutely fascinating read, perhaps because I've never read anything specifically on the subject before, although I can relate to much of what he discusses.  For anyone who has ever dealt with fear or phobias or even anxiety from a seemingly innocuous event like public speaking (which polls show many people fear more than death!), I'd recommend this book.  Heck, I'd recommend it just because it is such an interesting read, and because you are bound to learn something new.

The book is filled with anecdotal stories of people who both thrive and choke under conditions of stress, fear and anxiety, and delves into the neurophysiology and the evolutionary basis for fear.  And while it's not meant to be a self-help book, it goes into examples of individuals who overcame their fears and how they did so.  I also realized how it related to my participation in the Moab Plein Air event, and how I am preparing for it.

Why and how?  Well, despite the fact I don't have years of experience landscape painting (about 2 years now), let alone plein air painting, I feel comfortable and relatively confident in doing it.  Part of the reason for that, I think, is that I seldom have any expectations when I set up to paint on location, other than to paint.  Will it be successful or not?  Answer:  who cares?  In my mind, it is the process that is important, more so than the outcome...because, as I like to say:  a bad plein air painting is better than no painting at all.

What I don't have a lot of experience with, however, is painting within a time limit, at least on location.  So, after I registered for the event, I determined that some "training" for the quick draw was in order.  In this case, painting under the watch.  This has the effect of both familiarizing me with that particular parameter, and repetition...both of which are effective for combating the fear and anxiety of performance-related events.   Practice and training - it's what makes people better at whatever they do.  And if you've got a fear of something, the only real way to make it go away is to face it head-on, as uncomfortable and unpleasant as that is.

So, from now until the few days before I head for Moab, I'm going to be doing two things in preparation:  1) doing timed paintings on location; 2) doing more Utah-oriented landscapes in my studio, from photos.  This way, I can fine-tune my plein air palette to that landscape without (hopefully) any "I'm missing these colors!" anxiety.

The painting in this post?  Done for time - 90 min.  To that end, it was a successful painting.  I was drawn to the various elements in it (pale yellow grassy hill vs. the eroded bank of the Animas in shadow, the river and exposed rocks, and the distal peak of Perins and the gray shale slopes of the hogback), and working efficiently during the allotted time.  Of course, it's got issues, but nary a painting I do doesn't.

Now, I ask you:  what are your fears as they pertain to you and your art, and what, if anything, do you do to address them?  Fear of failure?  Fear of forgetting how to paint?  Fear of gallery or juried show rejection?  It's really more of a rhetorical question to make you think, but feel free to comment on it if you wish.

In the meantime, here are some non-fear inducing photos from our hike yesterday, in lieu of painting.  Tripod in tow, I scrambled down steep banks and through brush to capture some of the falls and fall color of west Lime Creek in the San Juans:


Falls revisited from Aug 31 blog/FB post...this time, with wide angle lens and tripod
Wayne along a meadow section of the trail
Hmm...that rock behind him is in an unfortunate position, isn't it?
Sorry, Wayne!

Abandoned mining equipment near the end of the trail

A set of falls earlier on the trail shot on the way back with better light

Twilight Peak with the "Lime Creek Aspen Slope" in full color, as seen from Hwy 550
We've started calling these the "thermonuclear aspen", as they glow an intense yellow-orange even when in shade of the adjacent slope


  1. Fabulous photos and thought-provoking post, Sonya! Atta girl for stepping up to the plein-air event, and for sharing your pre-event prep plans. Familiarity with materials and subject always goes a long way for me, whether I'm drawing on location, teaching a class, or giving a demonstration. Practice might not make "perfect," but it certainly heads in the right direction.

  2. Sherrie, thanks for your comments, and I'm glad you found the post thought-provoking (I was concerned that people would find it too long and not bother reading it). I have been so into reading this book Nerve that I guess I was looking for an excuse to share it, and then this connection with preparation vs. combating anxiety came up and I went with it.

    Now, off to the La Platas for more plein air/fall color painting and practice for Moab!

  3. Great, Sonya! Love the 90 min. pastel. Photos too. I will read the book. Good to remember a bad plein air painting is better than no painting, or maybe creating any art is better than none at all? I'll have to remember that next time I have a bad studio day, or avoid a studio day all together. BTW, never seen you do a bad painting! Have a great time in Utah. Will be thinking about you.

  4. Thanks, Liz, and yes - I absolutely think creating any art (even what we perceive as "bad") is better than doing nothing. I always learn something from everything I paint, even if it ends up in the trash or unfinished, and if nothing else, it's good practice.

    The anxieties and fears come, I think, when we have this self-imposed need to always produce something good or great every time we sit at our easel or studio. Not a good mindset to have, and stifles creativity, I think.

    Thanks for the well-wishes in Moab! Wayne and I are going there next week to hike and I'll get to check out areas to paint when I come back :).


Your thoughtful comments add value to this blog - thank you so much for taking the time to leave them!

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