Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Seeing like an Artist" with Charles Woodbury in Ogunquit, ME

As faithful readers know, I've been posting articles here in an arbitrary way about early 20th century landscape painter Charles Herbert Woodbury. I first became interested in Woodbury when I discovered he'd founded a once-influential plein air painting school, and indeed an entire artists' "colony," in Ogunquit, Maine, which is one town over from where I used to live in Cape Neddick, ME.

I've finally collected my thoughts on old Charles in a single place, in an article titled Painting in Verbs: Rediscovering the Art and Teaching of Charles H. Woodbury published by the Mass Humanities Council's blog, The Public Humanist.

Woodbury painting in Kittery, ME.
I used to live in Kittery too!
Having basically lived obliviously right where Woodbury painted and had his school, I was surprised by how much history I didn't know - close associations with Edward Hopper, national renown, 4,000 painting students over 40 years, even three books now out of print but full of spark and insight. 

It was all so interesting to me, largely because today there are relatively few traces in Ogunquit, where it all happened. 

As I delved into his forgotten books and unpublished notebooks, Woodbury began to emerge as an unsung hero of contemporary landscape practice who early on championed some of the basic tenets of plein air painting as it's known and loved today: Woodbury's entire philosophy of painting and teaching revolves around the now-familiar notion of "seeing like an artist." 

In his gem-studded Painting and the Personal Equation (free ebook here), Woodbury presents a little manual on active observation and perception and a working formula for capturing sensations with fresh, non-fussy painting (techniques that my own students have explored in my workshops). 

The book also provides a revealing walk-through of the exercises and assignments he used in his "Art of Seeing" school. I will be bringing some of these techniques and exercises in "seeing big" and "painting in verbs" to a week-long workshop I'm going to co-teach in Oqunquit, within view of Woodbury's still-extant 1898 studio, along with Todd Bonita during the week of September 23. 

Ocean Waves by Woodbury
I'm going to be giving a free talk/lecture on Woodbury and the Ogunquit school at the York, ME Art Association on Saturday, September 7 from 7-8 p.m. and again on Monday, September 9 from 8-9 p.m. at the Manchester Art Association in Bedford, NH. It's an overview of Woodbury's life and work with an emphasis on how the "art of seeing" philosophy informed his work and how it can inspire today. You can download the slideshow as a PDF here.

All of this isn't intended to teach people to paint like Woodbury, of course. But the spirit of Woodbury's views provides jumping-off places for precisely, I think, what so many artists are looking for: inspiration for fresh, non-formulaic seeing and painting. 

It also feels like paying respect to one's predecessors. And really, it's just great to be painting outside in a place as beautiful as Ogunquit and to be "doing art history" in a way that treats it as a living thing.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

An Exercise in Expressiveness

I recently had a chance to try out some new exercises with two different groups of painters in classes on Cape Cod and at Star Island. The site of a practically untouched 1870s hotel, Star Island is part of the Isles of Shoals, a group of rocky yet beautiful and timeless islands lying 10 miles off the New Hampshire coast.

A painting of mine of the cliff known as
"Miss Underhill's Chair" on Star Island
In one exercise, the challenge was to paint a wholly expressive, abstract interpretation of the environment. The exercise started with a meditative walk in which we tried to be wholly present and to soak up impressions and "notice what we noticed" - a flash of color, the sweep of a cloud, the jut of rock or a root.

Next we returned to the studio and purposely did not paint anything that looked like the location. Armed only with our fresh impressions and memories, we specifically painted not what we saw but what we felt - not our ideas about what the physical place looked like but non-objective, expressive corollaries of the sensations we received from being there.

The point was not to make a masterpiece but to tap into something genuine. Even if the painting "failed" as traditional Western art, it would succeed in its truth and each artist's painting would truly be his or her own.

As it turned out, many of these paintings were not only expressive but also extraordinarily "good" paintings - exciting and surprising works conveying palpable moods and unique perspectives.

Finding and expressing one's heart's truth in painting is a mysterious, blindfolded affair; so much of it comes from parts of us that are inaccessible to rational thought. But we can control what we don't do - we can refuse the rational mind's insistence on what makes a "good composition," we can get around the rule of thirds, the rules of perspective, color theory and proportion.

I think it's probably a good idea sometimes to slip out the back door of the expected and the received and see what happens.