plein air

Out and About, Drawing Book in Hand by Jeannine Cook

Having a drawing book with one when out and about rewards, not only at the time as one hones drawing skills, but also later,.Then a drawing becomes a passport to remembering the sights, sounds and sensations experienced at that time. Yet, for me at least, I have realised that these drawings are a world apart from my usual metalpoint drawings. Does that matter? Who knows!

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"Motifs" as Mirrors of the Artist by Jeannine Cook

During my stay at DRAWinternational in Caylus, France, I found myself with the eternal conundrum – to work en plein air or to work in the studio. Partly, in truth, the colder weather made the choice a bit easier, but nonetheless, I was constantly aware of the tug of war internally, for I love to be out in natural surroundings to try and create art.

The other side of the equation is that in the studio, conditions for working are more organized and it is easier, physically, to work, particularly in metalpoint, which tends to be slower and more demanding of time and energies.

However, at the back of my head was a quote that I had read about Monet. He wrote, “All ‘motifs’ are mirrors – or else the project of plein airisme is as shallow as Baudelaire had once argued. The painter’s transactions with the ‘motif’ have as many dimensions as his sense of self and of his place in the world.”  ("Motifs" are subjects and themes in a work of art.)

It is true that one brings to any artwork a sense of what matters, in most cases at least, and I think that when the work is done outside, perhaps the additional, often subliminal, messages are just as important. Man’s “communion” with natural surroundings underpins everything, whether or not today, we realize it.In general, ignoring nature imperils us in so many ways, as we keep finding out.

For an artist, in particular, the web and waft of nature informs every gesture, every impetus, consciously or not. Thus when an artist works outdoors, there are so many complex and often enriching issues that influence the execution of a piece of art.

The other challenge is of course that there are indeed all those other considerations. An artist has to make choices, sometimes quick choices as light changes, or the scene disappears, or whatever. How to distill what one is trying to say, how to select the most simple and hopefully impactful aspects, how to mediate between a considered, controlled choice and a much more spontaneous, perhaps less “finished” piece of art, especially a drawing. Those are other aspects of plein air work. Each of these choices means that the work becomes a mirror of that artist, his or her sense of place in the world and self-definition.

I came across a lovely example of these simple artistic choices: last autumn at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, a wonderful place, there was an exhibition of silverpoint drawings that the American artist, Marsden Hartley, did.

He travelled in the 1930s to the Bavarian Alps and there, he drew a series of silverpoint studies that captured the spare geometries of these mountains. Very simple, very direct work – Hartley was communing with those mountain landscapes.

Marsden Hartley,  Mountain Landscape with House in Foreground,   (September 16, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley, Mountain Landscape with House in Foreground,  (September 16, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley, Waxenstein,  (September 13, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley, Waxenstein,  (September 13, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley,  Mountain Landscape  , September 1933. Silverpoint on paper.

Marsden Hartley, Mountain Landscape , September 1933. Silverpoint on paper.

Travelling south from Hamburg to Garmisch-Partenkirchen,in the Bavarian Alps, Hartley apparently produced 21 of these spare distillations of the mountains. 

Hills by the Lake, #2, silverpoint on paper, 11 x 15 inches, Marsden Hartley (Image courtesy of the Ownings Gallery)

Hills by the Lake, #2, silverpoint on paper, 11 x 15 inches, Marsden Hartley (Image courtesy of the Ownings Gallery)

Marsden Hartley produced a body of work that validates Monet's observation about "motifs" or subjects being mirrors of the artist.

Lessons from Cezanne by Jeannine Cook

Sometimes reading a biography of an artist helps a great deal.  I have just finished the superbly detailed Cezanne: a Life by Alex Danchev, and  am still absorbing the many lessons about art practices, as lived and learnt during Cezanne's life.

Self Portrait with Rose Background , oil on canvas, Paul Cezanne, c. 1875.  Image courtesy of a Private Collection

Self Portrait with Rose Background, oil on canvas, Paul Cezanne, c. 1875.  Image courtesy of a Private Collection

One of the main lessons I derived from this biography and from other wonderful publications and exhibitions of Cezanne's work is that tenacity needs to be allied with a dogged belief in one's own artistic vision or voice.  Despite all his doubts and setbacks, Cezanne kept going back and back to certain subjects - apples, his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire, self-portraits, etc.  Each time, he did something new, something inventive, something better, stronger and more personal.

Curtain, Jug and Fruit,  oil on canvas ,  Paul Cezanne, 1894, Private collection

Curtain, Jug and Fruit, oil on canvas, Paul Cezanne, 1894, Private collection

Another lesson that can be learned is how valuable it is to paint sur le motif as Cezanne called plein air painting.  He went out time and time again to work in the sun and heat or difficult conditions - he found new ways to render the landscape.  He told young painters, "The main thing in a painting is finding the right distance."  But finding the correct distance often meant a great deal of innovation, a break from previous, Renaissance traditions of what was far and what was near.  He collapsed distances, he gave us all licence to make horizontals and verticals indistinct one from the other, he showed that colour could serve as "all the ruptures in depth".  In essence, he allowed us all to become 20th/21st century artists who can paint in whatever way seems appropriate.

Mont Sainte-Victoire , oil on canvas ,  Paul Cezanne, 1897. Image courtesy of  Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore

Mont Sainte-Victoire, oil on canvas, Paul Cezanne, 1897. Image courtesy of  Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore

Another vital lesson is that Cezanne looked and looked so hard at his subject - to find its "truth".  He was frantically absorbing all he could about what he was seeing, trying to understand it, trying to grapple with it so that he could mutate it onto his canvas.  "Cezanne at his easel, painting, looking at the countryside: he was truly alone in the world, ardent, focused, alert, respectful," as Renoir wrote. Every artist working from life needs to scrutinise the subject as carefully and attentively as possible - then, and only then, can one really hope to transmute it and interpret it according to oneself.

A lesson which resonates with me is Cezanne's passion for trees - pine trees and olive trees in particular.  He painted them again and again,  depicting them as one would depict a close friend, loved and carefully studied.  They were noble examples of Nature, which resonated so deeply with Cezanne. As Ravaisou is quoted as saying in  Cezanne a Life, "he was a sensualist in art.  He loved nature with a passion, perhaps to the exclusion of all else; he painted in order to prolong within himself the joy of living among the trees."  We can all learn from his paintings of the Large Pine and other tree paintings.

Large Pine and Red Earth , oil on canvas, Paul Cezanne (1890-95). Image courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersbourg

Large Pine and Red Earth, oil on canvas, Paul Cezanne (1890-95). Image courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersbourg

Pistachio Tree at Chateau Noir,  watercolour with graphite on cream wove paper, laid down on tan wove paper, Paul Cezanne.  Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Pistachio Tree at Chateau Noir, watercolour with graphite on cream wove paper, laid down on tan wove paper, Paul Cezanne.  Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Paint with passion - that is what, ultimately, Cezanne seems to be telling us with the art, writings and musings that we have all inherited.

Mysteries of Art-making by Jeannine Cook

The mysterious process of creating art never ceases to interest and amaze me.  An artist's adaptability to circumstances is a vital ingredient in this mix, and one that tests the seriousness of resolve to create.  Somehow this self-portrait by Rembrandt expresses some of what I am trying to say.

Self Portrait with a Cap, open-mouthed. 1630. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Self Portrait with a Cap, open-mouthed. 1630. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Depending on the circumstances, an artist can find totally different sources of ideas and inspirations for art.  A simple example is when one is working plein air, versus working in one's studio and relying on very different sources than the outside world.

High Point, Sapelo Island, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

High Point, Sapelo Island, watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

High Point Dance, metalpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

High Point Dance, metalpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

I did both of these pieces of art when I was working on Sapelo Island, one of the magical Georgia barrier islands fronting the Atlantic Ocean.  They were done almost in reaction to that small voice inside my head, saying 'this is a scene which could be the source of a painting or drawing'.  Of course, once that decision is made, then comes the endless actions, reactions and alterations that are part of my art-making.  Working in the wind and sun, with changing conditions, an artist adapts according to the moment, trying to push through on the original idea and inspiration, and yet trying, at the same time, to end up with a respectable piece of art.  Incidentally, both watercolour and metalpoint are rather unforgiving media for changes and alterations, especially when drawing in different metals (silver, gold, copper, etc.).  It makes for interesting, if not challenging moments during the process of art-making!

By contrast to the concepts and reactions to working outdoors, en situ, there is the work in the studio, when an artist can draw inspiration from a myriad sources, in the head, from ideas derived from the wide world outside, from music, from reading, from films or television, from one's family and its history, from politics... an endless reserve of triggers that suddenly spark an idea for a piece of art.  In some ways, the work created in the studio is far more controllable, even if it is complex to execute.  Normally, you don't have to battle the weather, light constraints, travel, insects, etc. that you encounter often outside. 

Perhaps the only "constraint" in the studio is cultivating what Paul Cézanne talked of: "genius is the ability to renew one's emotions in daily experience".  You have to keep fresh, alive, thinking and reacting, to find that springboard to a new venture in art creation.  How that trigger comes is often, to me, totally mysterious, but again, I find that that mysterious small voice at the back of the head speaks when one least expects it.  Ironing, day-dreaming, a walk - meditative, repetitive jobs all help. Dare yourself to try another medium, another voice, another subject that you have not embraced before. Even an idea that is not perhaps initially the most inspired can evolve and become something special, something significant.  Whilst sustained hard work can yield results, there are times when other considerations in life - family, illness or whatever - have to be factored in.  In those cases, creating art can go on, even if only in your head, for a while.  Allow yourself to follow different work rhythms at those times, for ultimately, you will get back to inspiration and art-making, perhaps with added depth and ideas.

Basilicata # 2, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Basilicata # 2, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Basilicata #5, silverpoint/goldpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Basilicata #5, silverpoint/goldpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

These were two drawings I created in the studio, long after I had returned from an art residency in South Italy.  The seeds were sown there, the inspiration came later when I was looking back at drawing books and notes I had made there.

Inspiration comes in such magically mysterious ways, often by different routes, but every artist becomes attuned to his or her paths to art-making.  Trusting one's inner voice, believing in oneself and keeping one's antennae up high are all ingredients in these mysteries.

Places that Inspire by Jeannine Cook

Some while ago, I read a comment by a British watercolourist, Tony Foster, who had been painting on both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon.  (He managed to paint six-foot wide pieces on location, quite a feat in of itself!)  What he said was, "My thesis is that despite a world overloaded with imagery, certain places still retain the power to inspire awe and wonder.  All of my work is based on the philosophy that our planet is a gloriously beautiful but fragile place, and that as an artist, it is my role to deliver a testament to the fact that wild and pristine places still exist."

He is right. Art is one way to remind people that we are still able to visit places that transcend our normal humdrum lives, with beauty and grandeur that humble and inspire us.  But the subtext of such reminders is that we need to be vigilant, thoughtful custodians of such places.

This past weekend, when I was out along the Georgia coast, drawing, I felt myself to be in such a place of inspiration.  There is something about a natural environment that has not been much changed nor manipulated by man: it has another feel, another rhythm.  More primal, perhaps, but infinitely more powerful, subtle, complex and yet, very fragile.  As you settle down in such a place to try and create art plein air, the magic of the place begins to seep in - the lay of the land, the movement of water, the breezes, the sounds, the play of light.  It is hard to access how these influences show up on the art one is creating - perhaps only others can see them.  Nonetheless, there is an alchemy, an inspiration that keeps one going.

Even when the art one is creating is on a small scale, unlike Tony Foster's, the dialogue between place and artist is very much there.  Perhaps one is working almost instinctively, but the influences and inspiration of the place seep into what one is doing. 

Marsh wrack, silver/gold/copperpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Marsh wrack, silver/gold/copperpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

This metalpoint drawing, Marsh wrack, is about the wonderful, but seemingly chaotic patterns left by the dead Spartina grass swept up onto the high water mark by spring tides and left there to decay and re fertilise the salt water marshes.  Having spent time drawing a tenaciously majestic dead red cedar tree in Prismacolor, it was interesting to focus in on the marsh wrack lying in rafts along the shore at high water mark.

Last Days for the Cedar, Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist

Last Days for the Cedar, Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist

Both these drawings were, in essence, about the cycle of life in such natural, wild places.  The dead cedar was decaying, slowly and inexorably, host to lichen and insects, just as the marsh wrack was home to innumerable small crabs and insects who helped break down the grass stems.

These places of inspiration owe at least some of their power, perhaps, to the implicit reminders that, untrammelled by man's intervention, nature continues its exquisitely balanced and logical cycles of birth, growth, decay. We are straying into a world that should, and can when allowed to,  continue to evolve and exist in amazing, elegant sophistication.

As artists, we are privileged to get glimpses of these wonders.

Art's gifts by Jeannine Cook

Creating art is such a complex affair in itself, but there are other wonderful aspects that are often pure gifts to the artist. 

Every artist knows about the melting away of time when you are painting, drawing or creating in any medium.   The utter absorption, the falling away of other concerns and interests, the all-consuming demands of concentration - they are all part and parcel of art-making.

There are other gifts, I find, that make life more coherent, more enjoyable when I am able to spend time making art.  Somehow, miraculously, I seem to be far more efficient in the other aspects of life - the housekeeping, the cooking, the general functioning of everyday life.  There is more coherence to everything and the use of time becomes more orderly.

Another wonderful aspect of art for me is when I manage to go off and spend time plein air.  I spent a magical day this weekend, buried in the fascinating interface between salt marsh and oyster shell-rimmed high ground, the domain of cedars and live oaks, the home of fiddler crabs, herons and gulls. 

Coastal Cedars, graphite, Jeannine Cook artist

Coastal Cedars, graphite, Jeannine Cook artist

I was drawing for the Drawing Marathon, organised by the Women's Caucus for Art of Georgia, WCAGA, together with two friends.  It was a day of drawing, drawing, drawing, despite the heat and bugs. And here too, the gifts came in abundance as I lost myself in the complexities of cedar trees and patterns of bark.  Gifts like the whirring of wings as tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds hovered by me to inspect, the high-pitched trills of an unseen warbler, the keening cry of an osprey high, high above in sunlit heavens.  In between these sounds, utter silence, until a gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the trees around me or one of my companions walked past, the dry leaves crackling.

Cedar Swirls, metalpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Cedar Swirls, metalpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

These are gifts that nourish, calm and reorder.  Granted, they are not to everyone's taste, particularly for city dwellers who may not know or care about such aspects of the natural world.  Some of the gifts require the quiet of art-making to show themselves. Yet they make a case, I believe, for us all to ensure that the natural world remains protected enough that we can spend time outside, away from the hurly burly of our usual electronic-driven, hustling daily life.  Only then will such gifts be given to us as artists, along with countless other lovers of the outdoors.

Hurray for Plein Air Days by Jeannine Cook

For a multiplicity of reasons, I have not been able to draw for the past few weeks. This means a feeling of serious "withdrawal" is beginning to prevail: I need to get back to creating art.

So it is with delight that I prepared my paper and pencils for a plein air session tomorrow, a workshop I am giving for local McIntosh Art Association members. The weather holds promise, I trust the insects will be blown away and that the local Georgia Wildlife Refuge at Butler Island, (an erstwhile rice plantation of considerable fame) in the mighty Altamaha River delta, will be in its full spring loveliness.

There is always the excitement of recognising that you have absolutely no idea what will strike you as subject matter, for drawing or painting, when you set off on a plein air session. You just have to let your subconscious mind tell you what matters, and then hope that whatever you create can be allied with your technical experience and personal identity, to make something worth while.

Henry Moore had it right - again! - when he remarked, "The observation of nature is part of an artist's life. It enlarges his form (and) knowledge, keeps him fresh and from working only by formula, and feeds inspiration."

Four trees charcoal, watercolour wash.ballpoint pen and pastel on paper, 1981, Henry Moore (Image courtesy of Mutual Art)

Four trees charcoal, watercolour wash.ballpoint pen and pastel on paper, 1981, Henry Moore (Image courtesy of Mutual Art)

A suitable thought to carry with me as I set off to Butler's Island in the morning!

Drawing Nature by Jeannine Cook

As I work with other silverpoint artists on finding exhibition venues for contemporary silverpoint drawings, I have had the luck and pleasure to "meet" some truly wonderful artists, even if we have not met face to face. Since, by definition, drawing in silver requires a very sure hand and an appreciation of subtleties of light, form, composition – these artists are good draughtsmen and women. It is fascinating to see the hugely diverse use of this medium, both in technique and content, especially considering that the technical parameters of silverpoint are narrower and much less flexible than, say, graphite.

One artist friend who deservedly has been garnering much success with his drawings is Timothy David Mayhew. Whilst he does the most magnificent paintings of animals and birds, as well as wonderful small plein air landscapes, it is his drawings that I find breathtaking. Elegant in the extreme, they are done with a variety of old master media and techniques that Timothy painstakingly researched and reconstructed for his personal use. Nature is his master and inspiration. Ever since I first got to know him a little, he has alluded to time spent in different - and often difficult - environments, where he hikes and observes, following animals and birds in their own habitat. The resultant artwork, often done in the field, rings true, because he knows his subject intimately.

Four studies of a black-crowned night heron, Timothy Mayhew West,  (Image courtesy of the Museum of Wildlife Art)   

Four studies of a black-crowned night heron, Timothy Mayhew West,  (Image courtesy of the Museum of Wildlife Art)

 

Timothy frequently wins both kudos and awards. Recently, for instance, at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, during the "Western Visions" exhibition, he was awarded the Robert Kuhn Award for a drawing entitled Study of a Gray Wolf wading in Water, a natural red chalk drawing. It was apparently a double delight for him as Bob Kuhn had been his friend and mentor, introducing him to drawing live animals together in studio and zoological settings.

Timothy David Mayhew, Right side study of a gray wolf wading in water, natural red chalk and natural white chalk, (Image courtesy of the artist)

Timothy David Mayhew, Right side study of a gray wolf wading in water, natural red chalk and natural white chalk, (Image courtesy of the artist)

Drawing Nature, in all its aspects, is always fascinating but extremely challenging. It requires endurance - there are always insects, heat, wind, sun, rain and humidity, difficult terrain, or a combination of them to deal with! Living creatures don't just stay obligingly still and in view. One needs to work quickly when opportunity presents itself. Once one has got organised on these aspects of art-making, it is often nothing short of a miracle to produce a work of art of consequence. Particularly one that is in silverpoint/metalpoint, chalk or any of the demanding and unforgiving media that Timothy uses.

It is well worth checking out Timothy David Mayhew's work. His drawings sing.

"Forgetting about Art" by Jeannine Cook

John Constable, the consummate English Romantic observer of nature and artist of magnificent landscapes, once observed: "when I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture."

I was thinking about this remark of Constable as I settle into my newly furnished studio in Spain and decided I wanted to inaugurate it by painting whatever my eye lit upon as I looked out of the windows. It was an interesting exercise, as in truth, there was a lot of beauty, but nothing that especially spoke to me as potential subject matter. Too many leaves, too much tumbling brilliance of bougainvilleas - in short a jumble of shapes. But I decided I would press on. The result was this small watercolour. I deliberately tried to keep my mind blank and just work by reaciton.

From my New Studio Window,  watercolour,  Jeannine Cook artist

From my New Studio Window, watercolour,  Jeannine Cook artist

Another remark Constable made was equally relevant to this watercolour exercise. Only someone who has worked a lot plein air could have such accurate insights. He said, "No two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other."

He was right about the fig tree having a wonderful diversity of leaf forms. He was equally so about the every-changing light, the fugitive shadows, the change in intensity of flower colour... But it was fun to do this study - in a brand new and lovely studio.

Making Art by Jeannine Cook

I came across an interesting quote today: Sol Lewitt was talking of the "primacy of idea in making art". His thesis was the idea itself, even if it is not eventually made visual, is as much a finished work of art as any finished product. This is as succinct a statement as one could wish about Conceptual art.

Lewitt continued, "All intervening steps, scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed works, models, studies, thoughts, conversations are of interest." Thus the idea, the intention, the gestures, are all almost part of a choreography of creation, of making art.

Sol LeWitt ,  Wall Drawing 565 , June 1988 (Image courtesy of SFMOMA)

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 565, June 1988 (Image courtesy of SFMOMA)

Whilst I know that some art-making is indeed a process of this type, with ideas that might or might end up as visual art, I find that there are other ways that art gets made. For instance, I know that when I am working plein air amidst wonderful scenery, I very soon find that after the initial spark of excitement and assessment of the viability of composition, what medium to use, and other technical considerations, I am no longer "thinking" at all. I am just some sort of channel for my eyes and my hand to work together to produce art. The process is in essence pure reaction, beyond having any idea per se. However, it does also mean that one needs to have a lot of practice, of trial and error, in order to make decent art, because instinct is not always a good guide to art-making!

Dedication and hard work are needed, in fact, whether one's avenue is conceptual or not. Making art is fascinating, complex, many faceted and endlessly stimulating. Sol Lewitt was an eloquent ambassador for art-making.