Traveling with Watercolor – Foreign vs Familiar Subjects in Watercolor Painting

I was planning a trip to travel with my watercolors when 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.

Painting Your Own Spaces

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.

Surrounded by lavender in Provence (photo: Linda Queally)

Painting Watercolor Away From Home

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.

Vineyard near Sault, France

Painting Things Unfamiliar

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.

Statue of Jean Althen, Papal Palace Gardens, Avignon, France 8×5 watercolor

Painting in a Foreign Place

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.

Remembering lavender near Bonnieux with colored pencil in a moleskin sketchbook (photo: Linda Queally)

Watercolor Journals

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.

Little postage stamps of lavender dot the valley from the village of Bonnieux, France

Document Places for Painting Later

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.

Hillside homes, swimming pools and a castle in Gordes, France

Images + Experiences = Better Art

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.

Medieval walled homes on the hills near Gargas, France

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?

Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you in the next post!


Art Quote

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)

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12 thoughts on “Traveling with Watercolor – Foreign vs Familiar Subjects in Watercolor Painting”

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  5. Great post, what a wonderful trip.
    I have sketches, doodles and drawings in my sketchbook from all of our trips, and even though they are all pretty unfinished and rough, they bring back more memory of the place then any photo I have ever taken. Even in my simple little watercolors I recall more vivid details about the experience than any photograph. I think it is the physical recording of a visual experience, the immersion into just being present, that becomes etched into my consciousness.

    Thanks for sharing your work and experiences.

    1. Hi Jim, I completely agree with you on the recording of a visual experience, especially for those of us who are so visually inclined. It’s so potent and visceral, I can’t help but encourage anyone who hasn’t sketched on location to give it a whirl. Thanks for backing me up in my statements about the power & fun of it all.

  6. I love this post, and know what you mean. I have not painted Paris (yet) from my photos, but would love
    to. But I have painted from many photos of Nova Scotia, which is like a second home. Still every now and
    then a friend or colleague’s photo of a landscape, or person, or scene, will hit me square in my creative center, and then I’ve had almost the same experience as painting from my own reference, redolent with memories, or the full tactile experience. So I love what you say, and the whole process is mysterious. Your photos are magnificent.

    1. Hi Barbara, I am looking forward to your Paris paintings! For some reason, Paris makes me think of winter, but your photos are from summer, yes?And I have fond memories of driving through Nova Scotia as a kid with my parents, so I love that imagery too. And I know what you mean about the “grab” of a friend’s photo. If you love it, that goes straight into the pigments too. ๐Ÿ™‚ The mysteries of familiarity & art. Thanks for visiting.

  7. There was a time (decades upon decades ago) that I would look at images in travel magazines for inspiration. Once I started started sketching outdoors, a whole new way of seeing and experiencing opened up – I still appreciate great photography and enjoy virtually travelling the world through photos – but never am I tempted to paint something that I haven’t actually seen and photographed — better still, scenes from which I’ve also made a study. And, of course, the ultimate experience is painting on location. Then the world becomes an amazing kaleidoscopic oyster to be tasted with all one’s senses!

    1. A kaleidoscope oyster! Yes! And then, we get to sketch and paint all the offerings! It’s a pretty fantastic deal, as far as I can see, and I hope our combined enthusiasm convinces a few non-travelers to try it just once. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Belinda, I so agree with you! Many years ago I traveled to Paris and took a trip to Seattle and an artist retreat in Escondido. I sketched constantly and that enriched my experience of each place. To this day, I can go through my sketchbooks and immediately, everything about that moment comes rushing back to me. I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking my sketchbook with me everywhere and realize it’s time to pick it up again! As usual, your writing and lovely pics inspire! <3

    1. Hi Robin! Paris would be a pretty grand place to sketch & draw, and Seattle is on my list! Who were you painting with in Escondido? That’s pretty close for folks here in SoCal. I clink my sketchbooks to yours in an artsy toast to exploration, and the capturing that takes place when artists collect what’s in front of them in pigment. And here’s to sketchbooks in the car, by the phone, in the handbag and on the bed table!!! xoxo

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