plein air

Same place, different eyes by Jeannine Cook

I was preparing a CD of artwork images for an exhibition proposal yesterday and found it fascinating to look again at the art. The work was done by my dear artist friend, MarjettSchille, and me while we were Artists in Residence on Sapelo Island on the Georgia coast. The Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR) staff had generously awarded us these stays on the magical barrier island.

Sometimes, working plein air, Marjett would go off in one direction and I would find something else to paint or draw. Other times, we would settle down side by side to depict basically the same scene. And as I was reminded again, the results are so different. See for yourselves.

The Green Pond, Sapelo, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

The Green Pond, Sapelo, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

the Green Pond, Sapelo, watercolour, Marjett Schille (Image courtesy of the artist)

the Green Pond, Sapelo, watercolour, Marjett Schille (Image courtesy of the artist)

The different approach between us points up the innate individuality of each artist. Each of us brings to a work our own experience, choices, eye, technical expertise and individual passion and concern. We thus make different choices as to what to feature, what to emphasise and highlight, what mood to portray. Some of these choices are subconscious, deriving from knowledge of the area and concerns about it. Others are very conscious and fall into the domain of artistic technique and skill.

Such diverse results enrich the public discourse about art, individuality and each artist's unique eye. The artist's eye, or - in essence - hallmark, enables that artist to produce work that is recognisable and coherent for the viewing public, even with diversity of subject matter. I loved being able to measure the divergences and convergences in Marjett's and my work as we both celebrate Sapelo's peaceful Green Pond.

The Selective Eye by Jeannine Cook

As I watched an episode of Art Wolfe's Travels to the Edge on public television, I was constantly reminded of the parallels between his criteria as a photographer and those of an artist, especially an artist working plein air. When you arrive somewhere and you are hoping to create images of beauty, impact and meaning, you almost have to listen to your inner voice to help decide when and where to position yourself to record such possible images. Frequently there is not much time to waste - the scene changes, the mist lifts, the light alters, people or animals move away - and the image has evaporated.

With time and experience, you can learn to analyse time and light situations to help you find the perfect contre-jour lighting for a scene or the ideal position from which to see dawn break over a landscape you want to record, for instance. It is basically a question of being really observant. Of course, photography is considerably faster than painting or drawing. Nonetheless, it is sometimes surprising how much information one can quickly record as an artist if one is excited enough about a scene to want to capture it properly. Many artists use a camera as an aide-memoire too, but personally I find that the two-dimensionality of the recorded image, with its frequent paucity of detail, is not very helpful then to record another two-dimensional painted or drawn image. (There are also those indefinable extra dimensions you experience - of sounds, scents, feel - that somehow all filter into artwork created in situ, and are often absent from art created from photographs.) Nonetheless, however you create art, you still need to be able to choose your vantage point from which to record an image. Often, it needs to be a quick, almost visceral decision.

Composition, light, colour - they can all underpin what you want to say - as a photographer or as a painter or draughtsman. Nonetheless, experience also teaches one that you can start out trying to record a scene, urban, rural or whatever, and within short order, the artwork itself has taken over, and the image starts to dictate its own progress. You are recording the passing of time, in essence, especially if you are working from life. There is another ingredient in image-making: that of the artist's frame of mind that prevails when one is photographing, drawing or painting. How one feels, something one is thinking of, a phrase in one's head at the time, music, rustling leaves or birdsong heard at the time, the weather one is experiencing - they all influence the art being created. Consciously or unconsciously, each of us is a form of barometer, and our art shows our "weather", in the choice of scene, the way it is depicted and its implicit messages.

Each of us also has an innate predilection for certain types of scenes to which we respond and will want to use to create art. Our individualism is important and we all need to believe in our own eye and approach. Nonetheless, it does not hurt to have a knowledge of great master works, paintings, drawings, photographs... They inform our choices too. After all, as Picasso remarked, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." So as an artist or photographer scouts for possible images to record, that background knowledge is part of the sixth sense that each of us needs to start the act of creating art.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon , Picasso, 1907,(Image courtesy of  MOMA, NYC)

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon , Picasso, 1907,(Image courtesy of  MOMA, NYC)

Beginning with a drawing by Jeannine Cook

Today I was out painting on the marshes, and the reflections and patterns were unbelievable as the tide flowed serenely in. Working in watercolours, plein air, not from photographs, one can become schizophrenic as things change so quickly. Added to that changeability of light and pattern, you have a lot of humidity, so watercolours seem to take for ever to dry. So I was doing what I seldom do, doing two paintings concurrently.

Pretty soon, I remembered, a little wryly, a remark I found that Hans Holbein the Younger had made: "everything began with a drawing..."

Portrait of Sir Thomas Elyot,   1532–34, chalk, pen and brush on paper (pink-primed paper), Hans Holbein the Younger (Image courtesy of the Royal Collection)

Portrait of Sir Thomas Elyot, 1532–34, chalk, pen and brush on paper (pink-primed paper), Hans Holbein the Younger (Image courtesy of the Royal Collection)

How true! If I had not made a relatively loose but nonetheless careful drawing before I started each painting, I would have been in deep trouble. In one painting, I got fascinated with the reflections of three docks along a creek edge, and the play of light on their pilings, roofs, etc. However, between the drawing and later (sort of!) completion of the watercolour, people had moved boats around, the tide had come in, the sun had gone over and clouds had come up. Without at least a rough "road map" underneath, I would not have known how to continue the painting at some points.

I think I first learned to the value of an initial under-drawing for a watercolour many, many years ago in Alaska. I was doing a landscape of the dramatic mountains and inlets near Homer, and to my delight, there was a little red plane parked at just the right focal point. I had drawn it very roughly, intending to return in more detail as I got more to painting that part... Painting away happily, I suddenly realised that I was hearing the sound of a plane engine starting up. Before I could remedy my omissions of detail, the little red plane had sailed up into the air and disappeared! So much for my focal point!

In other words, draw, draw and draw again - one never regrets it.