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Jan 9, 2014

"That's nice, but is it a painting?"

I think one of the hardest things a plein air painter must learn to do is decide if a subject is worthy of painting. 

How many time have you jumped into action only to discover halfway through your painting isn't going anywhere? How many times have you squeezed out more paint and struggled on, using up the remains of the day, only to conclude at some point whatever it was that first inspired you died a pathetic and whimpering death? Man, I hate it when that happens.

I had the good luck of running into Greg La Rock years ago one morning down in Sonoma County. We bumped into each other while scouting the same subject: Ernie's Tin Bar near Petaluma, a funky garage and bar where you can get a beer for a buck while your oil is being changed. (Not sure if that's such a great combo, but hey…) Greg and I walked around and chit-chatted for a while as we scoped out the various angles. Eventually I found a spot first and settled.

Greg LaRock, painting a
worthy subject...
Greg continued to mill around before finally wandering over. He looked past my shoulder, squinted, and said, "That's nice, but is it a painting?" Well, that gave me pause and deflated my enthusiasm a bit. But that question turned out to be something I needed to hear. Up to then I hadn't invested much thought into whether or not a particular spot was worthy of painting. I just started painting if I liked it. Up to then I had believed if you were good enough artist – say, like Sargent – then anything you saw could be turned into a work of art. And, perhaps this is true if you actually are Sargent. But even so that still doesn't mean somebody else is going to care.

So give Greg's question some thought the next time you are out scouting for a place to paint. We all have to choose a subject at some point, and our choice can either be a help or hinderance. Years later, Greg's question has become the first thing I ask myself when evaluating a subject.

Here are a few more questions I ask:

1. What is it about this scene that made me stop and look?

        and its corollary...

2. Is it something that will make someone else stop and look after it is framed?

3. Will the light remain stable enough to pull it off? Or, instead, can I come back and work it over several sessions – yet still create the impression it was merely 'dashed off'?

4. What do I need to modify… no, wait, let's be honest here – I mean how much must I edit/change/add/reinforce/alter/switch/finesse/and yes, even lie about this subject to turn it into a painting?

       and its corollary…

5. Am I willing to do all of that or should I simply move on…?
Silly and imprecise questions to ask, perhaps, but in my experience there are no hard and fast rules you can apply to guarantee a successful choice. No formula, method, or check-list. Just your own intuition and that doggone nagging question:

"But is it a painting...?"


If you would like to work on your plein air skills with me next May in Tuscany check out the upper left corner of this blog! There are five spots left, so don't wait! Spouses and partner welcome also.

Cost is inclusive, from €1640 to € 2400. 
(Approximately $2,220 to $3,240 US; airfare not included.)

But don't wait to sign up, the early discount ends December 31st!

3 reader comments:

Matt Chinian Painting blog said...

Hi Thomas, I've been thinking about this a lot and ultimately I think it comes down to: "is this a subject for a (your name here) painting" I know how much goes into the thought process to find "subject", what to include or not, the big picture and the details (or lack thereof). I spend way too much time second guessing myself, it's a waste of ink to try and guess what someone else will think. You have to follow your instincts, not think too much, know your limits and get out of your own way. .... also just watched the Robert Hughes documentary you had posted, lots to ponder. Thanks, great blog, Matt

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Matthew, basically I agree with what you have written and am not suggesting you air I attempt to second guess other people's reactions too much. But if you or I are painting for a living it can be helpful to ask ourselves if someone else will see what we see in the subject. If you are not painting for a living, well, then you have a luxury others do not. The answer to who am I painting for isn't anymore hard and fast or clear as anything else having to do with art. But in my humble opinion, the moment you or I hang something on the wall, or even share it with friends, we are explicitly inviting others to make decisions about it. So I do give some thought as to what someone else might think, but not in an overly calculated way. And many a time I might come to the decision that what I am about to attempt may be a difficult for others to accept, but for other reasons decide to paint it anyway. For myself.

Matt Chinian Painting blog said...

Hi Thomas, Thanks for your well thought out response. I cut my teeth in the contemporary art world, where genre painting was studied,(as history) but as a student you were expected to make your own (genre) and defend it in critique. Everything was questioned. In the rarefied world of realist/ landscape painting, the format is pretty much given. I don't see that there should be such a wall between the two worlds, and no matter what if your putting your work out there, it exists among historic masterworks and sharks in formaldehyde. Yes indeed I hope that my audience is equally aware, and still enjoys the work. Cheers! Matt