Water Lilies and Zen

Pond lotus

I went out four times in July to paint pond lilies and almost gave up after the second try. Every plein air painting experience has its challenges, but the rewards make it “mostly” worthwhile so I continued to try. This post is a summary of that experience.

Plein air paintings of water lilies

There’s just something about water lilies and lotus. They’re enchanting and beautiful in their simplicity, and many artists both before and after Claude Monet have painted them. Monet’s series of water lilies paintings, over 100  in all, have a tranquil beauty that both painters and collectors appreciate.

Monet Lilies

Water lilies by Claude Monet. Completion date 1917.

Monet loved gardens and painting, and it was to his gardens in Giverny that he retreated as World War I ravaged Europe. He was aware of the war and could sometimes hear the sound of gunfire in nearby battlefields.  “Yesterday I resumed work,” he wrote on 1 December 1914. “It’s the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times.” Many of the inhabitants of Giverny fled to safety, but seventy-four-year-old Monet stayed behind: “…if those savages must kill me,” he wrote in a diary, “it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work.”

Study 1—the things we forget

I carry a lot of things with me when I go out to paint. In addition to the pochade (painting box) and the tripod it’s mounted on, I carry paints, brushes, brush cleaner, brush holders, hand wipes, paper towels, a paint scraper to clean the glass that lines the palette area in the pochade, nitrile gloves to protect my hands from paint and solvents, an umbrella that clamps on to the tripod, extra panels to paint on, an apron to protect my clothes, a hat, and … it’s easy to forget something at home. Once, I was all set up on location only to discover that I had no white paint. It’s hard to paint without white paint. I’ve also forgot the umbrella or paper towels or my hat. On this outing, I forgot to pack the paint medium that is needed to help make oil paints flow well. Painting without any medium is hard to do, because the paint has too much resistance and grabs the canvas. I didn’t do an underpainting, and instead, just started right in painting on an 8×10-inch panel. After two frustrating hours, I still didn’t have the whole panel covered and called it quits. (No photos taken.)

Unfinished plein air study

Study 2 (above) The things we remember

Time and weather are external factors that in addition to the act of painting itself have a direct impact on the success or an outing. The best weather is when conditions are steady: not too windy, too hot, too cold. too cloudy, etc. But often we just have to take what comes. The window of time we can paint is small: two or three hours under the best conditions, by which I mean that conditions are stable. So, after the less than satisfying first effort (described above), I doubled down and double checked my supplies to ensure I had everything. While I was getting set up to paint, I recalled the times (including the previous outing) during which I’d included too much information in a painting and failed to complete the work. I decided to focus in tighter on the subject so I’d have fewer objects to paint, which might help me get the painting over the finish line. Then, I reminded myself to stay relaxed and not worry about the weather or the time or finishing. It’s the experience of painting that really matters most.

Como pond lotus

Unfinished plein air study

Study 3 (above) Setting intentions

As the weeks passed, the water lilies in the small lake where I’d been painting had become crowded. The giant floating leaves were pushing together and fewer flowers were making their way above the mass of leaves. I needed a new place to paint. Trusting my intuition, I decided to drive to a park in St. Paul where I discovered a small pond that’s a little removed from the well-trodden paths. The pond is planted with water lilies and lotus and they’re gorgeous! Because I draw well (I did technical illustration for a lot of years), I have a tendency to duplicate what I see. My paintings do, at times, feel tight. I want to develop a more “painterly” approach to painting, but I can’t just start slapping paint on the panel. That’s not who I am as a painter. So I’ve been working to find my “happy place” and to be able to apply paint without making the paintings look too realistic from close up and like photos from a distance.  A painterly effect requires a painterly approach, which for me means using a larger brush to do more with less effort. Each flower petal is painted with a single stroke, for example; not five or six or seven. Each splash of orange is a single stroke. I had to really look for the “color” while doing this painting. It’s obvious once it’s captured in paint, but the small color notes are not so obvious when I’m focused on shape, form, composition, color values, and trying not to be seduced into adjusting the paint colors just because a cloud passes overhead and makes the colors in front of me look different. Color, like shadows that appear and disappear when the quality or intensity of the light changes, is elusive. One of the tenets of plein air painting is: establish color and shadows in the under painting and DON’T chase the ever-changing light that affects both color and shadows. This was my best outing so far, and I plan to finish this painting in my studio.

Set up at Como

Study 4 (above) putting in the practice time

I approach both plein air and studio paintings as deliberate practice. The most recent practice sessions are what I think about so I can adjust my intentions and expectations for the next outing and continue making progress as a painter. In the week that passed between doing studies 3 and 4, I received a copy of Gist of Art that was written by John Sloan and published in 1939. My copy is a 1944 second edition that has this stamped inside the front cover. I felt like an important piece of American art history was in my hands when I saw it.

Art Students League

Below are three observations Sloan makes in the chapter on painting. There are dozens more that I will incorporate as I understand them.

  • The great painters separated form and color as a means of realization. They did it by underpainting the form in semi-neutral colors (I did this best in study 4).
  • We have been so wrapped up in personal expression that we have lost the power of disciplined technique.
  • In direct painting, the color harmony is best planned on the palette. Every stroke of paint laid on the canvas should be right in color.

He dedicated a chapter to landscape and mural painting. Here are a few of his observations and advice:

  • Feel the power of nature, the force that threw up mountains and urges plants to grow.
  • Van Gogh saw nature differently. He used what he saw as a point of departure for an exciting design…his linear technique is used to separate color and shape.
  • …to do the best landscapes from nature, first become familiar with the forms.
  • When I used to paint landscapes directly, after selecting the subject, I would take half an hour to set my palette. Then I would pick up those tones and draw with paint. Instead of imitating the colors in nature, I decided on some quality of color that interested me and set a limited palette with which I could represent relative greens, reds, and other colors.

I have four studies in various stages of completion that I plan to finish in my studio. And I hope to get to the park at least one more time before “fallish” weather brings an end to the lilies and lotus blooming season this year.