Tips for a Sunday Painter: Part Two
It was because of visiting the trails around the State Line Look Out in the Alpine, NJ Palisades that my Sunday painting practice took center stage in my work. Even though I was born near the Hudson Palisades, I had never visited the state park until I had lived in Brooklyn for over ten years. The Palisades had always been part of my family’s lore – my Grandmother regularly picnicked and swam on the shores as a teen in the 1920s, and both of my parents frequented the Palisades amusement park in high school. However, I had never visited the state park. It wasn’t until a friend once took me hiking there that I finally appreciated the geological masterpiece. At first, I found it hard to believe that the severe and dramatic topography of the Palisades was only a stone’s throw away from a gargantuan, metropolitan center. However, after walking around on the trails one begins to form the impression that New York City’s location was determined, in part, because of the Palisades’ towering strangeness. Of course, you can read about its transformative history, first as the native grounds of the Lenape, who called the area Weehawken, meaning rocks that look like rows of trees, and that it was given the name ‘Palisades’ because of its geological likeness to the protective military structure of the same moniker. But through observation – just by looking – one can piece together the evolution of the place and nature’s influence on the metropolis that developed across the river. Landscape predicted city. You can see hints of art-deco building design in the natural rock patterns; the dizzying cliff heights, and the stark, vertical drop to the shoreline seem to predict New York City’s penthouse skyscrapers. An estate class once inhabited the tops of the cliffs, while immigrants and traders once lived along the low-lying shores.
I started painting with a friend on the trails late one summer, which eventually lead to taking frequent trips up there on my own, riding a Port Authority Bus up 9W and then using my phone’s GPS to find my way into the park. I made small plein air paintings as I hiked over the course of seasons, beginning in June and continuing throughout the winter. Hours of looking while painting began to throw history into stark relief. Merely “observing” in this case revealed a tremendous amount about a reality that I took for granted. I became interested in the fact that observing, for the purpose of painting, provided a very specific and also unexpected way of gathering knowledge.
I can offer the following tips when painting outside:
1) Think like a painter – for instance: start a painting because you appreciate how one green looks electric next to the black shadows behind it. Or because you can’t name what color the water actually is: is it orange or deep blue? A painter figures it out by mixing. Don’t start a painting by plopping the GW bridge in the center, just because its seems like the obvious and important subject. A color relationship or a shape is a better subject for a composition.
2) Observing just for the sake of it, non-teleological, is one of life’s great pleasures and also a useful skill. When painting outside you are constrained by time, which requires a unique brand of visual problem solving. The color relationships will change completely within an hour and a half. You must work small and complete the painting within that timeframe or re-visit the same location, at the same time, for several days.
3) When painting outside you will inevitably have to paint trees. Don’t attempt to paint every leaf. Instead, mix a color for shadow, a highlight, and a mid-tone, then draw shapes using the colors that you have mixed. Often times, you only need to mix a few main colors for a composition. By mixing your already-mixed colors, you can create an overall impression of the light you are trying to capture.