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Looking Back at Gadsden

June 14, 2011

The Bench, 8x10, Gouache

I struggle with plein air work.  Making gouache perform in the outdoors is a maddening exercise.  And it shows.

Indoors in the studio, where I can take my time, I have almost complete control over my chosen painting medium.  But outdoors, it’s a completely different story.  And I’m not sure it’s the time factor.  Some of the paintings I did at the Souheastern Plein Air Invitational were done in not much less time than I’ve spent on similar size paintings in the studio.  But they were a completely different level of quality.

Now don’t get me wrong.  This is not a longface, down-in-the-dumps, woe is me thing.  It’s just a moment of reflection and self-discovery as an artist.

Those of us who participated in the Southeastern in Gadsden, Alabama were billed as Professional Plein Air Painters.  Actually, I was there because I was invited.  And I was invited because I paint in gouache.  I’m not sure I served the purpose that was intended for me, but in spite of the frustration, I had a heck of a good time.  I’m not sure the work measured up to expectations, but those who looked over my shoulder at least got to see someone using gouache on location.

While having someone look over your shoulder adds some pressure, there’s also a certain amount of fun to it.  For example, The Party’s Over was painted at a little marina on the Coosa River.  Naturally I chose to paint a slip that had long ago lost the battle with time and nature.  While I was painting, a very nice lady parked her car, walked over, and watched a bit.  She told me that when she was younger, she and friends used to have a lot of parties there at the marina.  Thus the title and the story behind the painting.  As I look back on it, I’ve decided that the quality of the painting is secondary.  I had recorded a tiny piece of local history.


The Party's Over, 8x10, Gouach

I was not at my best.  Maybe it’s the pressure to produce at an event like the one in Gadsden.  People have come to have high uexpectations of professional artists who paint outdoors.  And, as a gouache painter, unlike working in the studio, if you screw up, there’s no time to start over.  It isn’t oils.  You can’t scrape it off.  It can result in some real frustration, and ultimately, some dissatisfaction with one’s work.

426 Haralson, 8x10, Gouache

Bridge, 8x10, Gouache


Southside Bridge, 9x12, Gouache

Both while I was painting Southside Bridge and later, I was told that the bridge, with it’s center sections that swivel open to let large boats pass through, had become obsolete, and would probably be torn down in the near future.  I sensed a little touch sentimentality among those who had grown up in Gadsden.  Again, I look  back with a sense that I had recorded history.  These were a few of the better pieces done that week, in my opinion.  These were the paintings done without thinking too much about what people might think of them.

As I look to the future, I realize that muchof the plein air work I’ll do in the future will be done simply to record what I find and what I see, rather than to attempt to paint finished paintings.  They should simply – and intentionally – be sketches and studies.  Maybe… with time… they’ll become something more.

This was an expensive trip, but even though the rewards have to be counted in terms of new friends made and lessons learned, it was a great experience.  Looking ahead to going on the road fulltime, there was much gained.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2011 11:11 pm

    Ralph, I admire your willingness to try gouache outdoors, with the wind blowing and drying everything out. These are great studies. One thing I noticed, though, is that none of them have the depth of value that your sit-down works do. The darks aren’t as dark. Do you know why that may be – is it the light, or the limited plein air palette?


    • June 23, 2011 9:36 am

      Hey Meg, it’s great to hear from you. It’s been a long time. An artist who was there that week said the same thing. Part of the problem here is that the photos that were taken were a bit washed out. But it’s very definitely true of the paintings themselves as well. It happens every time I paint outdoors. The palette I use is basically the same indoors or out. I’ve about decided that I tend to paint a bit thinner outdoors. I suspect it is related to how fast the paint dries, and my ingrained tendency to conserve paint. I think I also haven’t acquired that “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” mentality when painting outdoors. In this case, everything we did had to be turned in at the end of the day to go into an auction. I struggle with the idea of “paint fast but paint really well”. It was definitely not my best work. I think I’ll expand on this in a new blog post.

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