The Creative Process – Painting Outdoors

“Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations.” -Cezanne


The sparkling morning dew on the grass that’s still refreshingly damp to touch. The whispering wind that caresses, carrying on with it the faint whiff of wildflowers and the sounds of roosting birds. The rains that darken the sky, mist the horizon and tap a melody over rustling leaves. This is what the artist is faced with when painting en plein air – where all his senses of sight, smell, sound and touch are continuously engaged, where he is in direct contact with nature’s life force. And in turn, this lends to his art something that is so invigorating – that it never fails to touch a chord with the viewer. A work done in the comfort of indoors may be technically more accomplished, but nothing can match the vitality of a watercolor painted outdoor in natural light!

The above paragraph was penned down by one of my writer friends called Amit. And I think it really captures the essence of painting en plein air. Sometimes these forces of nature have such a strong effect that a painting just happens spontaneously. But still most times there is a creative process that is at work when artists paint outdoors. This process is necessary not only to make successful paintings, but also to maximize learning and the joy of painting outdoors. This week I am headed to IIT Kharagpur, my Alma Mater to capture few of its beautiful location en plein air. And I thought it will be a good time to discuss about my creative process of painting outdoors.

This is the second post in my series of posts on Creative process. In the first post of this series, I have talked about the creative process in a generic way.

The Creative Process of Painting Outdoors

Identifying subject and the sweet spot

Outdoor Painting Equipment
Outdoor Painting Equipment

The first thing that happens in any creative process is Inspiration. Morning and afternoon light has the capability to turn mundane scenes to great subjects. Hence I generally prefer to look for inspiration in the morning or in the afternoon and avoid the flat noon light. A good subject does not necessarily mean a very beautiful scene. In fact sometimes a very beautiful scene may not turn out to be a great subject. What I aim to find in a scene is basically big abstract shapes, play of light and may be an interesting perspective. What I avoid is is clutter of too many shapes and colors. When I have found my subject, the next task is to find a good place to station myself for the next 2-3 hours from where I can observe the subject and paint. In fact the spot from where I paint generally becomes more important than the subject itself because if I am not comfortable in a place it is difficult for me to paint. When I find the perfect place for the perfect subject I call it sweet spot. All this exercise of finding a sweet spot involves quiet a bit of walking and exploration. Hence I keep my outdoor equipment very light and minimal and paint on papers that are no bigger than 11 x 15 inch (quarter sheet).

Getting a Feel

sketching to get a feel of surroundings
sketching to get a feel of surroundings

To begin with I only take out my portable chair and sketchbook and just start sketching anything that catches my eye. People, trees, buildings, cars, bikes, lamp post… It could just be anything. I just sketch to get a feel of the surrounding. Most of the times I would get my figures which later come into my paintings from these sketches itself. This exercise of getting a feel this way sets off the creative process of painting outdoors and it kind of prepares me mentally.

The Thumbnail and Idea Sketches

detail sketch of the temple and thumbnail
detail sketch of the temple and thumbnail

When I have sketched enough I start narrowing down on the scene that I would be painting. I look around through a view finder made with my palms to get an idea of the portion of the scene to paint. Squinting helps to identify the big shapes in the subject at this time. When I have found my subject I do a few thumbnail/composition studies to reduce the subject to 2-3 major tonal shapes. In these sketches I may move things around, add something that may not be there (without taking away from the subject), merge shapes together. This is an exercise to get my composition right without losing the tonal layout. Sometime I even color these sketches lightly to get an idea if my color scheme will work or not.

Execution – Spontaneity v/s Original Idea

color sketch
color sketch

When I am done with my preparation I finally setup my easel to paint. At this point I feel I have got it all worked out in my head. I feel very confident of making a great painting. I draw my subject and then start my painting with great enthusiasm. But somewhere in the middle of the painting many a times my world comes crashing down. I find myself completely lost. After all the medium I paint in is watercolor. And it has a mind of its own. It has its own powers to guide the painting. And when that happens its always better to go with the flow. Its better to change my plans and go in the direction watercolor wants me to go. Believe me or not, most of the times it does result in a better painting. The best parts in the paintings actually turns out to be what I did not paint, so to say.

Reflection

A sketh with color notes
A sketch with color notes

Ninety Nine percent of the times I am not happy with my painting on location.  When I get back home I put my work in a drawer or a corner so that I cant see it for a few days. When I see it after a few days it does look much better. It is probably because I do not have the actual scene in front of me to compare with. But at the same time I look at it critically and if needed I make some tonal or color corrections. One trick I learnt from a friend is to take picture of the painting, print it and then try the corrections on the print first  to check if it works or not. This way I can be sure that the changes to the painting will not kill it at least.

Indoor v/s Outdoor

somedays its just about sketching
some days its just about sketching

There are three major differences between working in the studio and working outdoors. First is the time factor. When you are painting outdoors you have to finish (or almost finish) your painting within a shorter time period. Second is the tools and materials that you can use will always remain limited. And third is that the outdoor environment is very dynamic and can be very uncomfortable. The secret to painting outdoors is to turn these into positives. Painting fast with a purpose often takes away over thinking and brings in spontaneity and freshness. Working with limited material makes the work simple which is the hall mark of a great watercolor work. And the dynamic environment is a great source of learning and also brings in new elements to one’s work.

In the end I would stress upon the fact that this is just a generalized process I follow. But in reality sometimes I don’t sketch at all and directly paint while at other times I keep sketching and never paint. While a process can help you never be afraid to go with your gut feel. Its more fun that way.

En plein air Mausima temple, Bhubaneswar
En plein air Mausima temple, Bhubaneswar
En plein air Aswem beach, Goa
En plein air Aswem beach, Goa
En plein air Distillery District, Toronto
En plein air Distillery District, Toronto
En plein air Mukteswar temple, Bhubaneswar
En plein air Mukteswar temple, Bhubaneswar
En plein air Veggies, IIT Kharagpur
En plein air Veggies, IIT Kharagpur

The Creative Process of making Art 2 : Reinventing Oneself

There are times when you could be at the top of your game. Painting well, painting in a good rhythm, creating masterpieces on a regular basis. But still the satisfaction of creating them is a short lived one. This little voice in your head starts whispering in your ear and keeps telling you that you have become too comfortable. And when that happens it is a tricky area to be in for an artist. You know you are in a good place and common sense tells you to enjoy it as long as it lasts. But then the creator inside you never likes to be ‘comfortable’ and wants to create something new. And funnily enough this situation is the trigger to reinventing oneself; Yet another creative process of making art.

I too am trying to reinvent myself and in this post I’ll share my method which I have followed till now.

The Comfort Zone Trap

Spontaneous creation of from a 'blank' state of mind
Spontaneous creation of from a ‘blank’ state of mind

The comfort zone builds up slowly. But it surely happens multiple times in a creative journey. Its a nice place to be in, but not for long. Because the more you get attached to it the more difficult it becomes for the artist in you to develop. So its good to be aware of this fact and just keep doing a sanity check once in a while if you are getting into the trap. A close look at your recent works will help you. Check if a certain pattern is glaring at you from those works. Check if you are getting repetitive. Do an honest assessment and your works will tell you if you are slipping into a comfort zone.

Well I did not do any such checks. I just strongly felt I need to do something new. And that I guess came from subconsciously seeing a pattern in my works.

Starting From Blank

Refining the spontaneous sketch during conscious exploration phase
Refining the spontaneous sketch during conscious exploration phase

You have identified that you are in a comfort zone and you want to break out from it. But now what. How do you let go of your style to do something new that you are not even aware of. This is a  good problem to solve in the creative process of making art. I am going to tell you the process I followed and its just one way of doing things. You can invent your own method. You can even try my method. It is fun by the way.

Conscious Exploration of 'new style'
Conscious Exploration of ‘new style’

I started from blank. I also made sure that I don’t use my regular paper, brushes and palette. First I arranged my paper, paint and brushes around me so that I can start painting as soon as I want to. Then I randomly picked a reference photo without looking at it and then closed my eyes. Next I visualized darkness and meditate on that to allow my mind to become empty. At some point I opened my eyes, looked at the reference pic  for a few seconds and then started painting. I just let my hand move as fast as possible in a subconscious and spontaneous manner. I took around 10-15 minutes to paint and then went away from my easel. When I came back to it after sometime I tried to find a new visual language in it which I can pick up and explore further.

Explore and Allow Yourself to Fail

Conscious Exploration of 'new style'
Conscious Exploration of ‘new style’

And I did find something I could pick up on. In this case because of the nature of the paper I had to limit my washes to light ones and number of layers to only two. And as I had ‘thrown’ paint at the paper, some parts of the painting was not painted. I had taken a spontaneous decision and had ‘drawn’ the unpainted parts with a rigger brush using black paint. So I decided to try these things out. That is

  1. ‘Throwing Paint and leaving a lot of white of the paper
  2. Limiting maximum layers to only two
  3. ‘Drawing’ with rigger to suggest the unpainted parts.
Conscious Exploration of 'new style'
Conscious Exploration of ‘new style’

Now again this step is about exploration just like the last step. But this is more conscious while the previous step was more subconscious effort. In this step as you can see from the pictures I was trying different ways of ‘throwing’ paint and leaving out whites and also different ways of drawing the unpainted details. Some seem to work while other did not. The idea here is to paint with abandon and try things without fear. The more you fail the more you learn. Allow yourself to fail in this step of Creative Process of making Art.

Finding the ‘New’

The whole idea behind the previous step of conscious exploration is to get used to the new thing you have found and establish it in your mind. The paintings that did not work teach you what to avoid and the ones that worked teach you what looks good. This way your decision making becomes better in your new found style. And as you keep painting more and more holding on to the spirit of the new method this decision making gets more refined and your muscle memory also get stronger. And then there comes a time when you become really good at it and the next comfort zone sets in. And then its time to break the barriers all over again.


Conscious Exploration of 'new style'
Conscious Exploration of ‘new style’

As far as my exploration goes there was a divine intervention. One of my idols happened to nudge me a little to align me to the right direction through a comment on one of the works I posted on Facebook. Now I’ll try to look for subjects to suit this new style and keep refining it. As I keep at it hopefully I’ll find a new  visual language somewhere on the way. And again hopefully that would lead to a set of accomplished and satisfying works till I get dissatisfied again.

The Creative Process of Making Art 1 : Generic Creative Process

As an artist, there is this particular question that I often face from different people on a daily basis. I am sure all my artist friends around the world must be facing this question too. And the question is “How muchtime do I typically take to make a painting”! I generally answer this question as, “Anything between a few minutes to a few years”. And then the eyebrows start to get raised.

The Creative Process

People often look at the time taken to make a piece of art as when a person is actually painting. And that time for me ranges from a few minutes to a few hours. But that is just the final execution time for the painting. All the time spent before that to reach that point in time when I am actually painting is more important and that time is highly variable. All the thoughts processed, all the ideas explored, all the actions taken to crystallize the idea and get clarity (many times just trusting intuition) and every other little things done to reach a point when I start to put colors on paper (including the action of putting colors on paper) is what can be called as my Creative Process of making Art. And this process varies depending on whether I am working outdoors or at the studio, working from life or working from photographs, working on some painting of my own or working on a commission.

Though its termed as a process its not necessarily a set of steps that I follow or have to be followed by anyone. The creative process sometimes can be purely spontaneous while at other times its methodical. But generally it is a mix of method and madness most of the times. In this series of posts I’ll take you through my creative process for different contexts. In this post I’ll touch upon my creative process in very broad terms.

Creative process of making art
Creative process of making art

Inspiration

there is no dearth of inspiration in nature
There is no dearth of inspiration in nature

In my opinion art can not happen without inspiration. Inspiration is basically that strong and sudden emotion that makes you want to go and create. It can come anywhere and anytime. It can come from a beautiful scene, a song, a story, from another art work or it can just be idea that strikes you. Inspiration can come from anywhere and many times it is from places you least expect. But unless you are looking for it there is a very small probability that it is going to strike you. So to begin the creative process look for inspiration and let it strike you.

Exploration

While painting outdoors I just sketch anything that catches my eye to form an idea
While painting outdoors I just sketch anything that catches my eye to form an idea

Just because you have been inspired, it does not mean it can turn into a master piece right away. However in some cases inspirations seems to give birth to great art works directly. It seems so because rest of the creative process happens inside artist’s head and that can not be observed externally.

When inspiration strikes, the next step is to search for that idea which would express your intention (born out of the inspiring moment) clearly on canvas. This is where imagination starts to come into play and continues to play a role in rest of the process. For me just sketching without any fixed ideas in head (exploring) or making small thumbnail studies helps in reaching the idea that would work on paper. Sometimes nothing works. In such cases just give it some time and space and the idea would come when you have almost forgotten about it.

Research

Many a times a painting needs some background research for factual correctness. For example if you are painting a scene from a bygone era you can not paint the figures with cell phones in their hands. You need to find out about things like clothing, vehicles, architecture etc of that period. Research typically includes reading, internet searches, talking to experts, travel and discussing with other people. While painting outdoors this process is much simpler as the subject is right in front of you.

Preparation

This stage consists  of a lot of sketching if I am painting from a photograph. I generally use different mediums to sketch. I also make sketches of different sizes. While painting outdoors also I do a few sketches of my surroundings to get a feel of the place.When you sketch your hands and mind warm up and ideas start to get crystallized. It brings clarity in your head.

This stage may involve learning to work with a new medium or picking up a new skill or technique. In such cases preparation time is typically a few months to few years. The exploration stage also involves sketching. But here the sketches are done with some idea and intent unlike the free sketching in exploration stage.

Feeling for the ‘Aha’ moment

There are only subtle differences in these two sketches. But the Aha moment came for the one on the right probably because of the difference in lighting
There are only subtle differences in these two sketches. But the Aha moment came for the one on the right probably because of the difference in lighting

This is the stage that is quite elastic in terms of time. Sometimes I am okay with the first sketch itself. And more often than not it takes many sketches to reach that ‘Aha’ moment. Its that moment when the sketch is able to match the unseen vision. And it does not have to be the latest sketch you would have done. It could be an earlier sketch which did not appeal to you when it was done. But later when you see it with a fresh mind it seems to work. Here you can ask how can a sketch match up to something that is still not clearly visible even in your head. Well the question is absolutely valid. The eureka moment is actually intuitive and its like a spontaneous uplifting emotion that I have come to trust. And when that moment comes I dont explore any further. That sketch becomoes the reference for my final painting.

Sometimes that ‘Aha’ moment never comes. In such cases I dont go ahead with the painting. But sometimes I just looks at technicalities of the composition,  color scheme etc and go ahead with the final work just to see how it turns out.

Execution

This is the implementation stage where the final painting is executed. All the previous process steps put together can be called as the build up stage which as I said earlier can last from a few minutes to few months and can go even up to years. All that time helps to bring clarity and confidence for executing the final work. But that clarity and confidence does not have to be 100%. In fact for me it has never been 100%. There is always room for spontaneity and improvisations. Especially when working with watercolors there has to enough room for things to happen naturally on paper.

Avoiding the ‘Oh No’ moment

Most paintings are killed when they begin to approach completion. A false stroke here and there towards the end of painting especially when working with watercolors can spoil all the good work that you would have done before that. So I prefer to be careful and take time to do the final touches in a painting to avoid the ‘Oh no’ moment.

Contrary to what I have said here sometimes an unintended stroke has actually worked for the painting. But the chance of that happening is very low.

Evaluation and Adjustments

The top painting was rejected after evaluation stage and painting below was done at the back of the paper.
The top painting was rejected after evaluation stage and painting below was done at the back of the paper.

When a painting has just been done one can be very attached to it. At times you may never see any glaring issues with it and at other times you may find faults even where there is none. So when I finish a painting I put it away for a few days. Typically 2-3 weeks works fine. Then I come back to it and do a critical evaluation. Depending on the evaluation I may do some minor changes and adjustments. But I dont do any major changes. If there are huge issues with the paintings I dump it in rejects drawer. Sometimes I paint it again on new paper or on the backside of the paper. Cropping the picture is also one of the things I sometimes resort to.

Learning

The creative process does not stop when a painting is done. You would always learn something new (however small it may be) from every painting. Its a good idea to document it by taking pictures and making a note somewhere. You can also take feedback from appropriate persons about your work and see how can you improve it. Many a times you stumble upon a technique, brush stroke or color mix in the process of making a painting. Make a note of it in your sketchbook and see how can you use it in your subsequent work.

The creative process is not linear. Its a loop and hence a never ending process. An artist just keeps traversing the loop again and again throughout his life. But every traversal of the loop makes her a better artist and her works more mature. Creative process is like a roller coaster ride of emotions. Generally the lows are more than the highs. But the high, when it comes is that of pure joy.