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May 14, 2013
Recently, Jil Ashton-Leigh of Steveston, BC, Canada told me about a wise Chinese art instructor who looked at her painting of the Fraser River and said, "Your mind--it is too fast." He told her to sit by the river for 30 minutes each day--no camera, no cellphone. "When you 'observe' the river then you will come to 'know' it," he said. If you're interested, you can read Jil's full letter "The Art of Patience" at the top of the current clickback.
Thanks, Jil. I first noticed my own problem about 20 years ago. I was losing patience with any outdoor painting I started. I was jumping up and running around with my camera looking like an advanced case of St. Vitus' dance. It wasn't the coffee.
It was something more serious. In my love affair with technology, I had mistaken my camera for a life. In my compulsion to grab every image, I lost sight of places I could pleasantly inhabit. I had become a mere collector without actually observing the things I was collecting, and I was feeling bad about myself.
Further, I realized I was living in a world that was "putting in a nickel and trying to get a dollar tune." I took the advice of the great American art educator and author of The Art Spirit, Robert Henri. He warned of the potential problems of too much camera, too little time. To build observational skills when painting from a live model, he frequently placed his students and their easels in one room and the model in another. "There is no art without contemplation," he told his students as they trudged back and forth.
One fine day I had my "hour of decision." Just as a child eventually deserts its soother, I suddenly didn't need my camera any more.
Brothers and sisters, if you've been troubled, or if you've been teetering on the edge, both Jil and I need you to convert. Glad tidings are in the grace of patience. "All things come to he who waits," wrote the poet Violet Fane in 1890. Sit still. Look around. Be one with nature. Inhale life. Observe the nuances. Come sit by the river.
PS: "Patience has to be cultivated. Perhaps the entire creative process can be viewed as a patience builder." (Jil Ashton-Leigh)
Esoterica: Several years ago I was visiting William Wordsworth's cottage near Grasmere in the English Lake District. Alone, I followed his trails out behind and above his property and into the shining dales. Passing slowly by nodding daffodils and under scudding clouds, I suddenly got it. No wonder Wordsworth was such a great poet! He took the time to think, to wonder, to contemplate. While predating the phone and the instant camera, he nevertheless had a warning:
Patience can be learned by Richard Mason, Howell, NJ, USA
Great advice. We think we see but most of us don't. Patience is the virtue we need High Country acrylic on canvas 9 x 12 inches
to make our work shine... Difficult when we are accustomed to the world we inhabit but it can be learned...
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Meditation can steady the mind and brush by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
I am working on my fourth model, third pose and second background of a work I conceivedMozart's Mistress pastel on handmade Twinrocker paper 20 x 16 inches
two years ago. It is a large life-sized nude painted from life.
I am a firm believer of some form of meditation before painting. Challenging and difficult work makes us tense and if we have the presence of mind - some call it mind-fullness, remembered from those quiet moments, we can steady the mind and brush.
I have worked from both photographs and life, and I would like to share just how special it is having a living, breathing human being in front of you. It takes intense concentration - each minute shift of the model or the light brings new revelations. There are colors you never thought to use - reflections from the background or catching an errant beam of light. Each patch of color on a face has its own value and hue, much more subtle and richer on a live model. It takes time and patience to mix all those separate tones. Painting a face is not like painting an orange, adding white for the lights, dark brown or black for the shadows, then a tint of pink for the lips or cheeks. Euan Uglow, the famous British figurative artist, only managed maybe two paintings at best a year. I cannot imagine how long it takes Jacob Collins to paint his beautiful nudes.
There are aggravations - the model is sick, late, whatever. You have to wait, again, but this is dispelled once the model returns and the light falls on your subject and you pick up your brush. It is magic.
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Three canons of photography by Douglas Greetham, Falmouth, MA, USA
My wife is the painter, while I was (still am) the photographer, although she has since Shadows and Reflections photograph
converted me to painter as well. Years ago, we would often spend a day out, mostly along the coast of Maine, she would paint and I would photograph with my flat bed 4x5 field camera. Almost invariably the "keeper" would be the last image captured. Sometimes it took a return visit to really capture what I finally managed to see.
Over the years I have come to truly believe in Minor Whites three canons of photography, which can easily be applied to painting as well.
• "Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence"
• "Let the subject generate its own composition"
• "When the image mirrors the man and the man mirrors the image something might take over"
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Be intimate with your subject by Janet Summers-Tembeli, Samos, Greece
The observation of subject material is an act of patience and devotion. When you become Beach Hibiscus, LaDigue watercolor 18 x 24 inches
intimate with the landscape, feel it, smell it, see the shadows move, the colors change, it's every nuance comes to life. I find it very hard, if not impossible, to work from photos. They lack the 3rd dimension, the movement, the spark of life. When I have observed, done some sketches, found the best time of day, then the landscape flows through my hands, my brushes bring to life the landscape with confidence and my colors sing. There is no substitute for knowing your subject. It requires patience and love. This is what the artist's life is about, after all.
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Work from life before using photo reference by Mackenzie Swenson, St. Paul, MN, USA
I'm a third year art student at a place called "The Atelier" in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Simon oil painting 23 x 18 inches
We are never allowed to use photographs for our work (although many people use them as references when they get out of school) and some of the paintings we do take over 90 hours of direct observation of the model or subject.
I'm going to take a minute to explain something lots of people ask about—working from photos. Advanced students are occasionally allowed to use a photo for reference, but we are encouraged to spend our time as students working completely from life. This means that everything we paint or draw is actually set up in front of us, whether it's a cast, a still life, or a person. This doesn't mean photo references are intrinsically bad, but the reality is that photos have limitations. After spending our student years painting from life, using a photograph in a project won't mean blindly copying. Instead, we can look at the content of the photo and somewhat understand what it would've looked like if we had actually been there.
We see the world as unique individuals. Our genetic makeup, collection of experiences, and a million other things influence how we see life. When looking at objects set up for a still life, one person might be drawn to the sweep of the flowers while someone else is caught by the gleam of the vase. Even if it's subtle, how we uniquely see the subject shows in how we paint it. Using a photo means that the 3-dimensional world is translated to a 2-dimensional surface for you. In doing this, we lose the chance to capitalize on our individual way of seeing. One of Sargent's teachers, Henry James, described art as, "A point of view, and a genius way of looking at things." If this has any merit, something of the artistry is lost when we create art based on a photograph's perception of reality.
There are 6 comments for Work from life before using photo reference by Mackenzie Swenson
I am currently working on a series titled quiet. Patience is a must for my process!aquatic 3 watercolor
During the past year I have been researching how color in our surrounding environments — particularly nature — influences our personal health and well being. After reading the book, Healing Spaces, that explores how our immediate environment affects our senses, emotions and immune systems, I began to paint what brought me peace. With an emphasis on repetitive, quiet patterns of movement found in nature, I focused on line, color, and form.
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Serendipitous photos by Kathleen Corrigan, Golden Valley, MN, USA
What timing! I have been painting a series based on photos I took from the car window asuntitled oil painting
my sister drove my parents and me through the Irish countryside in March. I often paint from photos. The time to sit in a landscape is a precious necessity. When traveling through a country with a pack of people, however, personal space as well as personal time is often compromised so I had to satisfy myself with stealing quick snapshots as we buzzed through Connemara, the Burrens, and the Dingle Peninsula. What is wonderful about these quick, often serendipitous shots is that I can project myself back into that place though I only caught the barest glimpse at the time. The narrowness of those roads, with the shoulders of the stone walls forging alongside and the bristly green purple barked trees closing in overhead caught at my imagination. Painting from these photos allows me to look more closely at that place now.
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Building a visual library by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
Several years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Rocky Mountains on two separate trips within two years. Guardians of the Waterway oil painting 72 x 24 inches
The first trip was with 3 of my artist friends for the National Sculpture Convention in Loveland, Colorado. We didn't have much free time, but we were able to do a few day trips and one overnight trip into the mountains. Every place we stopped we would all jump out of the car and shoot tons of photos. The next trip was with my family. Since I already had a lot of reference photos of the mountains, I wasn't as camera crazy, even though I did take some photos. The difference between the two trips was the amount of time I spent just sitting and soaking in the views, versus stopping and taking photos. When I got home from the second trip I was surprised how those images of the mountains were literally embedded into my mind' eye, so to speak. To this day, I will have images of nature pop into my mind as I am painting. Ron Monsma calls those images in an artist's mind, their "visual library." Every time we sit and just observe nature, people or life... we are building that visual library.
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Become familiar with the scene by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
Patience in observation is necessary to not only reproduce what we see but it goes far deeperBlanco River oil on canvas 20 x 24 inches
than that. One cannot take in details in a quick glance regardless if you go home with a fine digital photo for reference. You must experience a place long enough to become familiar with it.
A river is a living breathing entity as much as people or animals. I like to sit at a river to take in its pulse, the current. The sleepy Blanco River will sometimes swell with temper as rainwater rushes down from the hills and the low places are lost in a flash flood, in minutes. No river (or scene) is static; it changes from season to season, from one month to the next. How can we know that without the patience to study it?
Impatience tends to bless and curse the young. Life can be tackled at breakneck speed but the good news is we grow out of that. As we age we tend to savor our experiences. Impatience might be a positive attribute for some vocations but not art.
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No glass necessary by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
I want to share with you my experience and ideas about watercolor. A few years ago, in a workshopComet watercolor painting
by Bob Burridge, he suggested that Golden Acrylic Spray Varnish could be used on watercolors and then glass would not be necessary. I was thrilled, tried it and never went back to glass. Since then, I have another method that I almost prefer, but still use the spray sometimes. The product is Dorland's Wax. It is archival and gives a richness that the spray does not. I do not know if it is lightfast or not. I agree with the person's comment that watercolors should be hung where direct sunlight does not hit them. I bought a very big container of it from Cheap Joe's
when they had it on sale. Small containers are available at Dick Blick
Before, glass on my paintings allowed you mostly to see the reflection of the trees outside. Now the paintings are clearly seen. None seem to have lost any of their color and they are 3 years old or older.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Polonca Kocjancic
of Slovenia who wrote, "From time to time I found myself in a beautiful area or spot 'unprepared,' without a camera. But then I developed the following attitude: 'If I don't have a camera, I will take this photo with my heart.' I just sit and enjoy for some time. I am convinced that this attitude has given my life more quality."
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
of Port Moody, BC, Canada who wrote, "To be fair to all the busy bees out there struggling with many responsibilities, I don't think that lack of patience is the same as lack of time to do things properly. I am often pressed into running into nature to just take photos, but always bitterly aware what I am missing - so I make sure to plan for those priceless pockets of time when art can be born from patience and dedication."
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