It’s a warm spring day at a crowded waterfront restaurant in Marseilles, France. The high decibel French language surrounding me is a welcome reminder that I’m in a foreign country. After driving down from my hotel in the heart of Aix-en-Provence and vain attempts to find a suitable place to paint, I’ve decided to sample the local cuisine and break for lunch… Sautéed fish of some French description, chosen by pointing, salad and wine. The aroma alone tells me I’ve chosen well.
I’m at the beginning of a two week painting trip to France but in this lively, overcrowded city, when I do find suitable subject matter, I find no way to squeeze my rental car in between the parked Citroens and Le Cars. I manage one almost uninterrupted sketch and return to Aix in my rented Opel.
The next morning is overcast which is a light condition I love to paint. I drive through the verdant French countryside with its ancient stone villages and notice a grouping of warm-gray farmhouses in the small village of St. Cannat. They are partially surrounded by dark trees, which provide attractive value contrasts and a variety of shapes.
I’m intrigued by the architecture of the buildings in this area. For me there’s a kind of beauty in almost everything old. Fascinating messages from the past. Elemental building materials formed and arranged harmoniously by skilled craftsmen for elemental purposes and with the bonus patina of age.
I use these trips not only to collect a body of work, but also to expand my knowledge of the unfamiliar in order to improve my painting skills.
I’ve spent a good deal of time in the western United States exclusively learning about the shapes peculiar to mountains. On many trips to California I’ve painted mostly the ocean. Here I’m concentrating on ancient architecture and it’s surroundings plus, of course, anything interesting I happen upon.
On my next trip to Europe, I plan to change from oils to acrylics for increased ease of portability, the use of non-flammable materials for airport security and a greater range of sizes.
On this trip I’m also exploring not only the compelling subject matter but mainly emphasizing the initial masses at the expense of detail. This is the approach used by Sergei Gerasamov, a Russian painter I’ve been studying lately.
By “emphasizing initial masses”, I mean visually balancing the initial abstract divisions of the painting surface, then as the painting progresses, avoiding details and only adjusting for overall accuracy. If I succeed, far fewer detailed explanations are required at the end. The viewer is attracted to the center of interest and sees the remaining areas of the painting in imitation of indistinct peripheral vision. The painting is completed in the mind of the viewer who then, theoretically, has a feeling of participation.
There was an unforeseen benefit to recording this account. Because I wrote about what I intended to do, the beginning stages were firmly in my mind so that I kept to my plan and the resulting painting is one with which I am pleased. The beginning contains the end.
Toward the middle of a trip the paintings improve. There’s no shortcut. It certainly seems as if I’m working the same way as usual, but there’s a slight lack of ease of accomplishment to the beginning efforts compared to what I’m doing now. It probably has to do with rhythm, getting into a groove. There’s simply no substitute for diligent and continuing effort, which is why on a trip I paint every day. “Nature does not reveal her secrets to lazy poets nor luxurious darlings”. The full quote is in Edgar Paynes’ book. Walt Whitman mentions “trippers and askers” and the old adage is that… opportunity usually comes disguised as hard work.
A book I read recently looks into what I’m talking about here entitled; “Flow”, subtitle, “The psychology of optimal experience”. The author explains the elements necessarily engaged to avoid entropy and create an optimal condition. He describes activities that allow for the engagement of skill sets, the risk of failure, the possibility for growth and a concentrated and therefore time-suspended state. For me, he’s talking about the art of landscape painting. I find it a rewarding life to paint landscapes all over the world and as well as possible. That’s the sought after ideal but there are a great many difficulties along the path toward its fulfillment.
Probably the greatest difficulty early in an art career is moving from drawing to painting. Drawing is the fundament upon which realistic painting rests but painting simply can’t be accomplished if the artist is trapped within drawing lines. Lines don’t exist in nature but are convenient conventions used to indicate edges. Landscape painting, however, describes advancing and receding shapes and planes with a variety of edges from sharp to a complete blur. The initial painting of masses obliterates much of the drawing and yet every mark a painter of realism makes is a kind of drawing if it is to be accurately descriptive of form, as it must be for convincing realism.
Apart from that one day spent in Marseilles, I’m painting only in the outlying villages surrounding Aix. It may be that the city of Nice, my next hotel location, won’t work for me from a painting point of view either, as did neither Aix nor Marseilles.
In my former life as an actor, I was once in Europe acting in the filming of TV commercials for Chevrolet and one of the locations was Nice. The work included challenging driving, beautiful locations in many countries, a friendly and amusing British crew and great pay. I can remember wishing I had the time to paint in Nice and vowed to return one day for that purpose.
Unfortunately the densely packed city I find this morning bears little resemblance to the Nice of my memory. Memory seems to work that way. I decide to keep my Opel and paint my way north to the airport in Paris for the return trip to the States. The rental agency in Nice said this could be done, so I’m free to suit the action to the word.
Following some fits and starts I manage to find a route used by Napoleon that runs from Nice to Grenoble and from there on to Paris. I’m now in the French Alps and have stumbled onto a Landscape Painter’s paradise. Majestic snow capped mountains, rushing rivers, deeply- carved cultivated valleys and precariously placed timeless villages, some with castles. The mountains can be thought of as benign and protective giants and I take comfort in their presence. I decide to take a break and walk toward a warmly lighted and welcoming café through a gently falling rain.
I’m back on the road and looking for some sort of a protective overhang that will shield me from the rain and has painting possibilities. Finally, at about seven p.m., I set up to paint in a bus shelter. The view is of a small village nestled among cultivated fields and stands of trees with a looming, snow capped, partially fog-obscured mountain as background. Apart from the patter of rain and the occasional birdcall, all is peace and stillness. I proceed to work in a state of, what I would call, calm excitement. The light lasts long enough and all goes well. I probably like “L’iscle de Vergons” well enough to add it to my web site, www.dhfa.net
It’s a 16” x 20” plein air painting on a gessoed 1/8” door skin. Door skins are light in weight and at this size I can fit twenty or so in my luggage.
Later in the evening I meet Ari, the owner of a market who speaks some English. He suggests that I go on to Grenoble via a town named Gap because the landscape “Est tres belle”. A couple from Switzerland agrees so the next morning I set out in this new direction.
It was good advice. I find an overlook with a view of a river moving into the distance toward snowcapped mountains. The sun peeks through the clouds for a moment and strikes the distant pastures and I have my center of interest.
In acting, a play advances by progression, which is to say that the actors are in a different emotional state at the end of a scene than in the beginning. Progressions, or gradual changes, are important to painting as well. By gradually lightening the value of the river in the above painting as it extends into the distance, the viewer is encouraged to move (progress) toward the center of interest, the sunlit pastures. There are many other gradual changes that may occur in landscape painting. To give the impression of aerial perspective in this humidity, for instance, local colors tend to gradually neutralize and move toward blue as they extend into the veils of atmosphere. They also lighten in value, but it’s the potential for graduation of top planes in the near and middle distance that is most often missed by beginners. Copying what is seen achieves some of this but understanding allows for exaggeration.
In this painting I was in a hurry due to the threat of rain so I quickly laid in the initial masses with a large brush and Liquin medium for rapid coverage. The cloud shrouded mountains were mostly a matter of edges, clouds soft and the mountain sharp. Using a palette knife, I quickly laid in the snowcaps using White out of the tube. Indigo lightened with White was employed for the Grayer portions of the clouds. Edward Seago used Indigo and Renoir called Black the Queen of colors but those who think of themselves as colorists are often opposed to the use of Black. At the end the rain was still holding off so I was able to make some careful adjustments and I was finished. Sometimes everything just seems to go smoothly as was the case here and from start to finish took no more than two hours. These are the “crowded hours” that I have come to live for. On the back I wrote; “Sunlit pastures”.
The next day I drive out of the mountains and into wine country. As I leave the mountains the landscape undergoes a dramatic transformation. The view opens up and I see rich arable land extending into the distance and the mountains merely a neutral-purplish backdrop. There are many possible subjects but I choose a view looking across a lake toward a sunlit village, “Le Lac, France”.
A few paintings and days later, in a medium sized town called Joigny, I paint along the road that parallels the river looking toward town. The painting has a feeling that I like. A low horizon and with lots to look at including buildings, a road with a few distant cars, a river, part of a bridge and a huge cloud-studded sky. Alfred Sisley did paintings with low horizons as did Edward Seago, Childe Hassam and others I admire. It’s painted on my last board but if I see something I can’t pass up I’ll use the back of one of the frisbees. Yes, there are always a few of those so I find it best to gesso both sides of the mahogany door skins I use for European trips.
The Joigny sketch turns out well and proves to be the last of twenty-one and I’m now in a hotel near the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. I’ve been chatting with some Americans who had an unfortunate experience with a cruise ship.
I relearned a valuable lesson on this trip that’s worth remembering. The lesson is to stay flexible enough to change that which is not working. By changing my plans and painting my way to Paris from Nice, I found the French Alps and the Wine Country.
I left many unpainted landscapes in those two areas so, as Douglas MacArthur once said, undoubtedly, “I shall return.”
Doug Higgins, Paris.