Painting the picture — and getting it

Last Friday evening as I walked the streets of Medford on my way to see "The Madwoman of Chaillot" at Rogue Community College, I passed by several people standing at their easels and painting. Young people, old people, standing alone here and there between buildings. The light was transforming from the incandescence of daytime to the muted transition of dusk.

Monet would have loved it. And were he still alive and living in Southern Oregon, he would have been one of the painters downtown.

Painting outside like that and capturing the effects of the changing light and atmosphere is called plein-air painting. It was the hallmark of a number of Monet's fellow French Impressionists. People still paint in that style today and they don't live in France. Apparently, some of them live in Medford.

When I was in art school, way back sometime before the Renaissance, we used to champion plein-air painting as being more honest than painting in the studio. Outdoors the lighting was natural and ephemeral. We were in the midst of that which we were expressing on our canvases. We painted what we saw, without overworking the painting with fussy corrections or embellishments in the stuffy indoors removed from the scene we were depicting and under artificial light.

For us, plein-air also was far superior to painting from a photograph of the subject. After all, the photograph had already flattened the three dimensions of the scene and cropped it. Where was the creativity, the draftsmanship, the art in copying from it? What was left for the artist to do except to color it in, sign it and sell it?

This of course led to the argument as to whether photography was even a legitimate art form. I would hear similar comments from my theater friends about movies vs the stage. Ah, the joys of youth, when you are absolutely right about so many things.

I've been thinking about painting again. "It's a fine hobby," my mother warned when I was accepted as a Fine Arts major in college, "but you have to make a living." She was part of "The Greatest Generation" that had weathered the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War and having one of her sons in Vietnam. Her generation vowed that their children would never know the hardship or poverty they endured. Thus the admonition to find a career that would put food on the table.

For years I tucked my mother's advice into my pocket and kept on painting. That attitude, a highly combustible mixture of self-righteousness and ignorance, has often fed my soul and just as often not put food on the table. I live in a culture that does not value the arts as a viable career. And I live and work among artists who don't understand money and the responsibility that goes with it.

As a result, many painters and actors wait tables so they can practice their art. It has become almost a standard part of the profession. We teach, we get day jobs and act in plays at night. We drive cabs, sell cars, clothes and real estate — or work in newspapers — and paint on the weekends.

So I've decided to paint again. Actually, it's a decision that I forced on myself with the birth of our first grandchild. Wouldn't it be nice for Grampa to paint a little picture for this new person? How about one every year as a birthday gift? Well, I now have three grandchildren and one on the way, so I am painting again.

There is something remarkable about painting. You start with the proverbial pristine blank canvas. You dip your brush into the paint and apply it to the white cloth in front of you and all at once, everything changes. It's an amazing experience. You are moving colors around. You are playing with light. A blob of blue here, a dash of crimson. They touch and a wisp of violet begins to emerge. And these colors not only combine to create new colors, they create moods, atmospheres and sometimes, images of flowers or hillsides. Or grandchildren.

The beauty of painting for a two-year old is that they don't seem to mind if Grampa finishes their birthday present a month after the date of the event. I suspect, however, that will change in the ensuing years.

For the record, none of the paintings I have made for my grandchildren have been plein-air. And most of them are based on photographs. So much for the enduring artistic integrity of my "fine hobby." Ah, the joys of growing older, when you are absolutely flexible about so many things.

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