Painting in Public
I just finished loading gear into my car for the Sierra Madre Art Fair (California) this weekend. If you’re local, stop by and say hello! I finished the watercolor above last weekend at the San Diego Artwalk. (If you signed up for my mailing list there, welcome!) This week, I started a new painting to work on at the Sierra Madre show. Painting in public – whether as a plein air painter, or an art festival demonstrator – can be tricky at first, till you get out of your own head. Then it becomes wonderful. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Step Up to the Chalkboard
Remember the first time you got called up to the chalkboard in elementary school to demonstrate your knowledge of something in front of the class with a piece of chalk? The biggest fears were 1) not knowing the answer, and 2) being judged by others. Painting in public is a time machine back to those days, except now we’re grownups, so we can manage our fears, and steady our wobbly knees. We can chant to ourselves: I’ve GOT this. Shuh-Zahm, M’am! The first time I painted plein air with a group of fellow artists of various skill levels, I couldn’t shut my brain off to focus on painting. [The insecurity & fear was so loud – what will people think?!] The second time I painted in public was far better, and each successive art festival got easier. Whew. They say you just have to Start, and it’s true.
Count Your Blessings
Keep this in mind: You’re outdoors, and you’re making art. What’s not to like about that? The most frequent comment I get is: “Wow, I wish I could paint.” Everyone wants to be good at something. Most folks who decide to have a conversation with you aren’t planning a critique. (Well, *some* people ask why you chose that color, or how you’ll fix parts that – to you – are in early stages of being blocked in, but to non-artists, appear too loose.) You can explain your plan, or not. Wish them a great day, and encourage them to make something when they get home while the inspiration is fresh. Most people will tell you – in all sorts of emphatic ways – why they can’t do that. Again, you are doing it – you’re painting – so smile and pat yourself on the back, and get back to it. Most people will simply be in awe, and get a little dreamy-faced as they imagine what it must be like to paint pictures. Lucky you.
Making art is a wonderful thing, and most people will be full of admiration for your efforts. Other artists will ask about it too. They’ll want to talk with you about what it’s like to paint outdoors and in public spaces. Tell them you’re doing something you love, and encourage them to do the same. Even if your painting or drawing comes out less than satisfactory, keep in mind that you’re working on it. You’re chasing fast moving light (plein air) or trying to bear down and focus on a reference photo (at an art event) while breaking concentration every ten minutes to chat. You can only have regrets if you let fear stop you from ever trying to paint in public. Don’t let the embers of fear scorch you into full blown regret. Painting is way more fun than sitting in the corner, mumbling about how it’ll never work to the dog.
Spread the Love
The best painting conversations at art festivals are with kids. Some of them love art, and they create in the solitude of their rooms, but if no one in their family is an artist, they get little to no encouragement. Even if they’re encouraged, there may be no one to give advice about methods and materials. Many of them don’t know enough about judgment yet to be self conscious, so they just enjoy the process, until they hear criticism, or they can’t create what they imagine in their mind’s eye, and they quit. What if your attention and conversation with them is enough of a boost that they stay with the work, and become artists with conviction much earlier than we did? What would you have done with early creative encouragement and mentoring?
Two Days or More
Most of the art festivals I exhibit at are two day shows. How much painting could you get done with two days away from food prep, laundry, dishwasher loading, floor sweeping, garden weeding, errands and assorted non-art activities? In between chatting with attendees, I get to paint in the sun, outdoors, for two days surrounded by artists, art lovers and kids who are utterly fascinated by art-making. I get to demystify the process by pointing out that I’m using a brush, some water, a palette of pigments and a sheet of paper – and that’s all I need to make a painting. I get to move freely in and out of the art-making zone, taking breaks for casual conversation, a handful of kettle corn or a beverage, and then zoom right back to the pigments again. And when the event is over, I’ve either finished a painting, or I’ve got one close to finished. It’s ALL good.
Ten Tips for Painting in Public
- If you’re working in plein air, snap a photo of your scene and do a small practice study to layout the basics in your studio in the days before your paint out date, around the same time of day that you’ll be painting. A little familiarity goes a long way when you’re new at something.
- If you’re working from a photo, get your drawing and a bit of watercolor down in the studio so you have a baseline to leap from once you’re on site, and the folks passing your easel have something to look at right away.
- If you sell your work, bring business cards with your web site and contact information, an invoice book to write up a sale, and a notebook for folks to sign up for your mailing list. People will ask if you do commissions, so bring a price sheet, and be prepared to have conversations about down-payment policies and timing for commissions, or paintings they’d like to review from your inventory.
- If you’ve written blog or social media posts about your favorite art supplies, add a sticker to the back of your business card with the links to those missives in case folks want to know all-the-things about your favorite paper, frames, paints, brushes, easel, etc. I like to recommend my favorite painting instruction books and youtube channels for tutorials too. Send them to your existing resource pages.
- Keep an 8×10 portfolio with photos of your work and a few copies of your bio for interested parties to flip through while they’re hanging out with you. Often, if a couple has stopped to chat, one is an artist and other other is more of an art appreciator, so the artist can relax and chat while their spouse peruses your archive of work.
- It may seem obvious, but with jitters, it might be forgotten: wear comfortable shoes, and sunscreen, and bring it with you to re-apply – especially to your hands, ears, neck and nose. Wear a hat, carry bug spray, pre-hydrate before the event, and drink lots of fluids during your painting session. Especially if you’re nervous.
- If you’re planning to paint plein air and you’re female, bring a friend or three. The conversations with fellow artists will help you relax, and other people standing with you in a remote or unfamiliar area will help you feel safe and comfortable.
- Non-artist folks may say things to you that are insensitive. People crack jokes meant to be funny, but they can be received as inane or insulting to you. Keep in mind that those exchanges are not about you as much as they are a billboard for the speaker’s shortage of social skills. Conjure an imaginary wand to zap those folks into mandatory charm school and be done with it.
- If you can’t find your painting mojo on the spot, pull out a sketchpad and do some simple, blocky value studies. No details allowed – just shapes in relationship to each other. Take notes of the colors around you, and the way the shadows are moving across the topography of the scene in front of you. Each time you look at those studies and notes, it’ll be a magic time machine transporting you back to the spot where you were standing. They are gold when you’re back in the studio, painting from photos of that place.
- Walk around with your camera and snap reference photos to take back to the studio with your field study. If you’re painting with others, take photos of them while they paint, and ask them to do the same for you. Painting outdoors as a newbie is a big leap, and you’ll want evidence of your courage to remind yourself that you did it. And you can share your experience on your blog or social media. Maybe it’ll encourage another artist to take that first step too. 🙂
- Bonus Tip: I keep a convex mirror with my gear for two purposes: when it’s propped on the ledge of my easel it acts like a fish-eye rear view mirror so I can see people walking up behind me. And even better, when you turn your back to the art in process, and hold the mirror to look over your shoulder (as though you’re trying to see the back of your head in a bathroom mirror with a hand mirror), it reverses or flips your painting, and the reference photo (or scenery you’re painting), and reduces both to thumbnails so you can check for lights and darks and shape-placement. 👍🏼
Do you paint watercolors outdoors, at art festivals or plein air? Do you have additional tips for folks who are thinking about giving it a go? Please leave some encouraging words in the comments. We all get better when we work at it together.
Thanks for stopping by today, and I’ll see you in the next post!
Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.
~Louis E Boone