Have you ever observed something, someone, or someplace, and wished you could somehow capture every single thing you were feeling right in that moment, and channel it in a tangible way in hopes that someone else feels those same sentiments? This is how art shows up for me. Art is one of my strongest forms of communication; finding a way to tangibly express how I see and sense beauty in this world, in such a way that it causes someone else to experience the same emotions and sensations as I experience them, is one of the most fulfilling processes in my life. Art allows me to become a creative conduit for raw emotion. I want others to be able to see the beauty that I see in the world, so I let the paint strokes speak their language to those who weren’t there to see the beauty in person.
I use a variety of mediums to express which parts of me I want to put out there into the world, but out of all the creative methods I play with, plein air painting is one of the practices that really keeps me grounded in the present moment. Plein air painting is a technique with French roots and translates to “in the open air.” It is a different experience altogether since your environment is no longer a room with 4 walls but an open landscape of your choosing. In many ways, it allows more space for creative freedom. When painting or drawing plein air, I have the opportunity to embrace the challenge and excitement of capturing an ever changing and dynamic scene. I am just being present-drawing what I see, not an objective mental image. It causes me to cut to the chase, so to speak, and ask myself...what's most captivating in this scene and what am I compelled to freeze in time?
I’ll usually start by categorizing things with basic shapes and simple composition-places so you can rest your eyes and experience that moment in time. I ground myself in nature and beauty; the goal is to recreate these elements in the painting so that I can walk right back into that moment and just rest...that’s the joy of capturing art exactly as you saw it. The beauty of drawing in plein air is that I am drawing “me” into the picture-my instincts, what makes me feel something, and then trying to share that feeling on canvas. One of the most fascinating parts of plein air is learning more about nature-the shapes of trees, the seasons, the way valleys are created from the flow of a river, and how the ever changing light casts shadows upon everything it touches. In plein air, you are on the sun’s time. I have always loved observing different types of lighting and there is a limited amount of time to try and capture radiant beams of light with your paintbrush; light that drips from the trees and spills out onto the surface of the water. Everything is ephemeral when painting in plein air-always keeping me in the present moment.
In 1980, I dipped my toes into a technique that was destined to expand my creative horizons. I took a figure drawing class when I attended Humboldt State University and this class planted a seed that was meant to come to fruition much later. It was the only drawing course I took and the experience of it gifted me with a new and fresh perspective on art. We learned about the anatomy of the bones and muscles of the human body first, because with figure drawing, you are not just drawing shapes but you also learn what is underneath those shapes and how they come together to form a figure or gesture. There is a live person in front of you, not a stagnant bowl of fruit, and that dynamic keeps my short attention span on its toes. The structure that the class followed was a mixture of different time increments. We started off with gesture drawings for 10 minutes or so, then smaller increments (5 ninety second poses), then a 20 minute session, and then a 30 minute session. The beginning minutes are not only a warm up but also a time to consider what’s important. What is the gist of the gesture? I follow my intuition when drawing the shape and form of figures to create the volume of what I’m looking at with a few lines or gestures.
When I’m immersed in figure drawing, I learn so much by observing others. Being a spectator to others in their creative process has given me great insight and also made me a better artist. By observing others' techniques I am able to implement them and improve my own work. There is an unexplainable energy when you’re in a room filled with people who are in their own creative world, while also somehow sharing it with you. While we are simultaneously observing the same subject, no two artists will interpret it in the same way… there’s nothing quite like it. Being in a figure drawing class with the silent buzz of energy permeating our space to achieve a present state of mind; is an environment that is so incredibly energizing. This environment, this medium, it just clicked with me.
Plein air and figure drawing may seem different in many ways, but for me, they are very much intertwined. I see the human form repeated everywhere in nature; I can find the same silhouettes on hills and mountains just as I can see on a live model, the same organic beauty, the same lines, volume, and structure in different landscapes, bodies, and scenery. When I’m working in both the plein air and the life drawing, it’s like my eyes are my hands, feeling out everything I’m gazing upon and while much of it somehow seems to come naturally for me, it is also quite challenging.
Both plein air and life drawing require a certain level of presence that is uncomfortable at times. It is a challenge to look at something in the present moment, compose it, shape it, draw it, and then try to form something that allows another individual to feel even just a twinge of the same thing that I felt when I first gazed at it. The artistic process is not one of censoring, but of simply responding to your senses. Where is the light source? Where are the shadows? Am I going to focus on drawing the light or the shadow? You can’t do both effectively with the right volume and with the limited time based on the sun or physical clock. Therefore, you must be able to quickly discern what is most valuable to include. How can I capture the magic a certain lighting casts? How can I take hold of that thing that’s just there for only an instant? There is adventure and spontaneity in it, but most of all an intense practice in being in the present moment.
There has been a significant gap of time in between that first drawing class I took at Humboldt and the class I recently joined in 2019 at Hipbone Studio in Portland, Oregon. I began life drawing at this studio and then the pandemic happened, putting it on hold. Shortly after they reopened, I resumed classes again (just a few weeks ago). I go to the studio every Wednesday and am slowly getting to know fellow artists, their work, and developing mutual respect and camaraderie. I have come back to figure drawing with a renewed joy to grab hold of what I see and express it on paper. I am constantly searching for different ways to artistically create my own interpretations. This is part of the beauty in both plein air and life drawing, no two artists will interpret the way the light bounces off of the same subject in the same way. It is fascinating. Capture what you see. Capture what’s in front of you. Capture what means the most to you. It doesn’t necessarily need to be purposeful but let it be mindful...isn’t mindfulness the purpose to strive towards anyway? Let there be no before and no after...just the precious, present moment.