I had the great fortune to spend this past Saturday with 6 amazing artists at Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown, RI. They traveled from Pennsylvania, Long Island and the far reaches of lil’Rhody to join me for my one-day plein air workshop. They were all of different ages and experience levels. We were going to be there all day, 9am-5pm painting and drawing.  

Initially, in the chilly morning fog, I prompted some “window shopping”. By this I mean, using a viewfinder (an adjustable compositional window) and hiking around to find a view. The viewfinder helps to rein in the panoramic possibilities inherent to working outdoors. It helps simplify and visualize a dynamic container for a potential image. I asked for three preliminary sketches in the first 45 minutes in an effort to find something inspiring that also elaborated the compositional and spatial concepts I talked about in the beginning of the workshop. 

In this search for a view, there is sometimes a great build-up of momentum and expectation. Most people just want to get started. You have packed up all of your art supplies, you have a certain period of precious time to make a painting, why waste it making preliminary sketches? Why spend time hiking around? I think there is a different way in. When you find a place that sparks you don’t do anything. I propose just sitting there with your sketch journal closed in your lap and look around you. Arrive. Really arrive. A sensorial connection to place can deepen your intuitive inspiration.  

Try this next time you go out to paint outdoors. 

1. Sit softly gazing at your vista. Drop your agenda. Drop the striving. Just let the view permeate you. Sit for at least 5 minutes and notice what arises. At first I usually feel a fair amount of anxiety in slowing down, in not doing in the face of doing. 

2. Feel the space as it unrolls before you. Open your journal. What do you see?  Starting at your feet and moving away from yourself list the things you see. Recently I tried this along the bay. “Shells, sand, ochre seaweed, pearlescent water, ripples, rocky point, trees, grass, house, sky with scoop of clouds brightening above me.”

Could one of the things you list be your focal point, your emphasis? What is the most luminous thing? What is the darkest? The most chromatic? What catches your eye? Why here? What was the visual spark? 

3. Close your eyes. What do you hear? “Waves lapping, red-winged blackbirds ‘ur-queeing’, boat engines in the distance, the wind caressing my ears.”

4. What do you smell? “The salty brine of seaweed.”

5. What do you feel? “Softness of the breeze, gratitude, bathed in my perception.”

6. Create a haiku from the experience.

“mercurial sea...rhythmic waves kissing the shore...I close my eyelids.”

The compositional options working outdoors are so vast. For me, to settle in helps me prioritize what I am really sparked by. Maybe this whole process of arriving only takes about 10 minutes but it is always time well spent. It will enrich your experience. Sometimes when I drop the speed and striving, a vulnerability surfaces. I think this vulnerability is the key to making authentic work. 

So next time you set up to paint outdoors, rather than jumping in, take some time to connect. Notice how tracking your perception on the spot can deepen your practice and guide your direction. Until next time…CREATE.

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