–ALTHOUGH I always loved painting outdoors, my plein air work lagged far behind the authenticity of my studio work. On a good day, I could achieve an imitation of a good painting. But an absence of genuineness dogged my efforts. Even if others overlooked my plein air inadequacies, I knew I was faking it. I was using studio techniques in the field without fully immersing myself in the observational and recording process necessary to discovering nature’s subtleties. I was capturing the form of the landscape but not the essence. I wondered if I could ever paint with full confidence in the field.
Over a decade ago I attended a prestigious artists residency where at the end of the day my host asked to see my field paintings. I was embarrassed they weren’t better and said, “plein air painting is like fishing–sometimes you don’t return with a fish.” It was a sentiment I read somewhere (and it is often true), but I knew it was an excuse. I should have said, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m here hoping that by some path I don’t understand one day I will paint successfully in the field”. At the time outdoor painting seemed so complicated, I despaired that my plein air work would ever have the same vitality as my studio paintings.
After a particularly humbling effort at a well-known plein air festival in 2014, I stowed my Gloucester easel and retired my plein air credentials. Three years later I was interviewed on a podcast about my painting career and asked if I painted outdoors like the early impressionists. I explained that I had tried my hand at the art but had been frustrated by its complexity and the lack of satisfaction my efforts gave me.
I prematurely assumed it wasn’t possible to paint in the field with the same confidence as in the studio–especially since my intention was to paint with thick strokes of vibrating color, exactly as I did in the studio. I consoled myself with the probability that there was a reason most painters avoided painting impasto in the field. But the desire persisted–Pissarro painted with heavy paint. So did Van Gogh. I always knew I would return to plein air painting and the interviewer’s question rekindled the spark of earlier enthusiasm.
Coincidental to these realizations, I made a breakthrough in the studio by sidestepping the issue of excellence and allowing myself to embrace mediocrity. I even taped a sign on the wall that read, “Just Be Mediocre.” Paradoxically, the relaxation encouraged by such a humorously blasé attitude allowed me to paint at a higher level. Performance anxiety was apparently playing a larger role in my painting than I thought. With nearly twenty years of deliberate practice behind me, I was able to relax into a routine. Being mediocre, or performing at a routine level, was exactly what I needed to do–provided that the routine produced a satisfying painting. I shifted my focus from trying for excellence to creating paintings that allowed a sense of exploration and achieved a satisfying aesthetic effect. I also had recently read that if I displaced negative internal dialog such as “I’m really nervous” with a more positive phrase like “I’m so excited” I subverted self-destructive negativity and would achieve the emotional balance necessary to produce more satisfying work.
In the interview mentioned above, I stated that although I wasn’t currently painting en plein air, it felt inevitable that someday I would. That day arrived sooner than expected. Within a few days and armed with the counterintuitive notion of just being mediocre, I ventured into the field, palette in hand and easel on my back. I found a suitable motif in a canyon within walking distance of my studio in Salt Lake City. As I set up my gear, I could feel the familiar anxiety rise. I told myself all I had to do was be mediocre–nothing more than performing at a routine level. I also told myself that I was excited, not nervous, to be in the field painting again.
The painting went well. There were moments when I felt the familiar specter of anxiety arise. I entered unknown territory and risked losing control of the painting. But I told myself that anxiety arose not from being in unknown territory but from the fear the unknown induced. I tamped down the fear with my clichéd affirmations and pressed forward. Eventually, I found the verbal part of my consciousness strangely silent as I effortlessly mixed and applied color. In that internal silence, I calmly pushed forward to a state of flow–a state I recognized accompanied my work in the studio. I had misunderstood why I painted in the field. I thought it was to record interesting and beautiful visual information for future paintings. Actually, it was to achieve the state of flow essential to producing unique expressions in paint.
I subsequently painted a half dozen large, saleable paintings within a few weeks. I wasn’t faking it. Nor was I discouraged by any momentarily perceived failures. I had successfully smashed the mental block that kept me from successful plein air painting.
What is the formula for achieving plein air success? Certainly the fact I trained myself to see value was a contributing factor. Although I no longer use a value finder I used one for years in the studio and the field. Simplifying my process certainly helped. I recently started using palette knives exclusively, which in the field meant no more solvents. But above all taming the demons of fear and anxiety allowed me to move forward and harness all the techniques I use in the studio.
The irony is that my breakthrough came at the end of a three-year avoidance of plein air painting. From books I’ve read on achievement, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. But that is one of the hallmarks of the artist’s journey–every journey is profoundly different.
(This article originally appeared in Plein Air Magazine online.)
Brad Teare –November 2017
Above: Summer Fields, 16″ x 20″ oil on canvas, available at Anthony’s Fine Art