The first time I read this quote (below) by the painter John E. Carlson, it rang true to me; you don’t have to travel far and wide to be a good painter.
Do not be a tourist painter. The casual tourist landscape painter will paint in Italy or Holland. If he is a Long Islander, his things will look like good old Long Island no matter where he goes! If you stay at home & say something about your own period, life & environs, your art will be a sincere effort. Paint Long Island & say more about it than any other man, and you will be a great artist. Your own period will be just as picturesque to posterity as the 17th c. is to you.
I love painting my own environs in watercolor & printmaking. I do invest “sincere effort” to render the rooms I’ve day-dreamed in, the windows I’ve gazed out from, and the kitchens I’ve cooked & shared meals in – they are some of my favorite painting subjects. Becoming a good painter is still a work in process, but the practice works well from the places I already inhabit.
That said, I want to sing praises for painting far away from home. In the last post (you can read it here), I returned from a trip to France, and now that I’m over jet lag, and life-stuff is somewhat re-assembled, I’m pondering the benefits of traveling specifically to make art.
Leaving familiar environs and daily routines shakes up and re-arranges creative habits. Painting with non-habitual, travel-friendly art supplies, in a field of lavender, among thousands of honey bees (buzzing in French, I presume), next door to hectares of vineyards, flanked by a rim of green hills pinned down at their highest plateaus by 14th century castles and medieval villages is altogether fantastically different than day-to-day activities in a home or studio.
You *know* – every moment you’re there – that the foreign soil under your feet, and the lavender scented molecules you’re breathing in and out are something special. Senses vibrate, eyes drink in, awareness sings with the wish to capture, absorb and carry some of the wonder home. So, you earnestly attempt to do that with your art supplies. Every sketch and stroke of pigment is a journal entry dedicated to a set of moments in your experience with imagination-expanding exploration of all things new-to-you.
Snapping a photo is a fleeting, half second shutter button finger-flex, but standing among the honey bees for hours, moving pigments on paper or canvas, looking at it all with appreciative eyes, heady with floral scented air, thinking about the history of place, and your time standing there, will all come back in little heartfelt swells of memory whenever you open your sketchbook to that day, in that field, with that scenery. You leave a little of yourself there, and take a little of the landscape home with you, in a much more potent, experiential and lasting way than you ever could with just a photograph.
It doesn’t matter if the resulting art was satisfactory, as long as you keep your focus on harvesting the experience. Art in the field is often simply a starting place for a larger work, so go ahead; grab some watercolors, plan a little sojourn, and reserve an adventure to gather and record all your senses with art supplies.
On the subject of photos, I want to affirm that I also love painting from my travel photos. Not photos someone else took – but images I framed, in the lens of my camera, and selected as my painting fodder. The combination of field (or interior) studies, along with photos snapped while sketching or painting, are excellent tools to bring that atmosphere back to life in my studio. I get the pleasure of re-living the joy, and in the process, I can try to imbue the art with all the marvel I felt while dwelling in those environs.
Perhaps Carson’s statement has more to do with real vs pretended ‘familiarity of place’. Painting a street scene you’ve never walked (from someone else’s photo), might result in less emotive art. Your love of place is instead just a love of the photo, and that might work well as inspiration. But there’s something to be said for shaking out the sheets with you’re amazement by traveling to a beautiful, unfamiliar place, specifically to stand still & harvest imagery with your eyes, nose, hands and some art supplies that captures & speaks as a testimonial to your love of the whole experience.
Do you see or feel a difference when you paint from a photo that you took, from an experience that’s personal to you, rather than from an image of a place you’ve never actually visited? How does it affect the flow of your art-making, and the feel of the final work?
Farewell, Monsieur Traveler. Look you lisp and wear strange suits, disable all the benefits of your own country, be out of love with your nativity, and almost chide God for making you that countenance you are, or I will scarce think you have swam in a gondola. ~William Shakespeare (As You Like It)