IN LIEU OF THE TRIP TO France to paint at Giverny, I took a three-day landscape painting workshop in Austin, Texas. It left me confused.
Prelude: Breezy with clear skies. The artist conducting the course flew in from Colorado. He has galleries in Denver, San Francisco, and Ogden, Utah. But I’d never seen his work. I was going on hearsay from people who’d taken his still-life workshop, and they were pretty jazzed up about him. Lots of breakthroughs, they reported. Tons of fun and really uplifting, they said. A world-class painter. I’m just quoting other people. There were about 16 signed up for the workshop.
Day 1: Early morning fog burning off by midday, with a high of 85. We stood out in the middle of the rose garden at the Zilker Botanical Garden, watching a demonstration. I started out standing at 9:00, but by 10:30 I was taking breaks under trees too far away to be within earshot of the group. I was loading up on sun block and digging in my pack for a hat. Not that I missed any good conversation. Holly perched her folding stool three feet from the painter—a tall, good looking man in his early 30s. She asked a lot of questions, but always in a quiet, seductive voice that didn’t carry well. People further away kept shouting at me to repeat what they were saying, but they weren’t saying anything.
“What did they say!”
“She asked if he had a favorite paint manufacturer, and he said not really!”
“What was that question!”
“She wants to know which flower he’s painting now and he said the big pink one!”
“What are they talking about!”
“She asked if he wanted a drink of water and he said no thanks!”
There was only so much of that I could take before I started looking for the mute button. I wandered over to where Sonny was sitting on a park bench. Sonny is a successful therapist whose father was an artist. Sonny had a digital camera, and he showed me a picture he had taken of the group huddled in the sun. It made a pleasing collection of cascading shapes.
Painting shapes was one of three main points during the workshop, and the only one I actually understood. “Don’t paint objects,” he said, “paint shapes. Then your brain won’t filter what the eye sees. And it’s easier to relate one shape to another accurately.” I understood, but given the temperature, I was mainly concerned about finding some shapes I could paint from a spot in the shade. Sunlight and shadow define some great shapes, but I was beginning to regret the disappearance of the early morning fog. You don’t see a lot of outdoor painters in Texas for good reason.
Day 2: Sunshine, with highs in the upper 80s. We met outside the botanical gardens, down by the Lower Colorado River. Here the trees were tall enough to provide shaded paths and dappled light. The teacher decided we should paint in the morning and save the demo for afternoon. I wandered down a path which was only partly covered by poison ivy and set up where I could paint a view of the opposite shoreline and a road that swooped down between buildings to a boat launch. Sylvia spotted me through the leaves, as she took a break, and came down to see what I was painting. “Do you know what poison ivy looks like?” she asked.
At lunchtime, I came up to chat with a couple of women I didn’t know. One was from Boston. “I have my own quilting studio. I’m very good,” she shared. “Every quilt I make takes a really long time. I decided to take up painting because it would be less time consuming.” Holly walked up. They all started talking about their sons and whether they should go to prep school. All their sons have high IQs, as it turned out. They can get into any college they want. They just don’t do their homework. But it’s because they’re so smart, you know, and they’re bored. Maybe prep school would be good, or maybe military school, muses one mother. “No, don’t send him to military school,” advises the other. “He’s too sensitive.”
“Is he a prolific quilt maker?” I want to ask. But I can’t squeeze in a word edgewise. Did you ever notice that everyone’s reincarnation story is about their life as an Egyptian Priest? No one is ever a thieving, lazy, street bum.
The second main point to come out of our painting demonstration had something to do with the painting’s anchor. I was very foggy on this point. I kept asking for a definition, and failing that, an example. “What’s the anchor in this painting?” I kept asking.
“Well,” said the painter, “if you hold a painting upside down and shake it, the pieces that don’t fall off, whatever is left, that would be the anchor.”
During the afternoon demo, I made myself comfortable on a jagged rock. While contemplating which part of the demonstration painting’s jigsaw puzzle pieces were likely to fall off, I dozed off.
Day 3: Continued warm, morning fog, slight chance of rain. For the last day of the workshop, we agreed to meet at the home of one of the women students. Her landscape was beautiful as you walked up from the street in this older, expensive neighborhood. The foliage was lush and the air was damp with fog. Inside the house, the Boston quilter was organizing, even though it wasn’t her house. It was her friend’s house, but in Boston this translates to “Su casa es mi casa.”
“I thought we’d do still lifes today,” said the Boston lady. “I’ve organized all the flower vases outside on the patio. I think it would be better if we kept close together today, so we can hear everything he says. Don’t you think that is a good idea?”
I was waiting for her to make sitting assignments with hand-quilted place cards. I wasn’t sure whether to bother setting up my easel—I might not be able to paint and gnash my teeth at the same time.
At least it would be easy to focus on the third main painting principal of this workshop: focal point. Way back on day one we were told to pick a focal point and concentrate details only on that area of the painting. Of course everyone ignored this. Some people put in a red dot for every single rose in the botanical garden. Some people tried to paint ALL the leaves on ALL the trees on BOTH sides of the river. And now there would be the tendency to paint every stamen on the magnolia in the glass jar.
In the end, though, focal point wasn’t what the painter wanted us to work on. First he took us into the house and pointed out a painting hanging over the fireplace. It was a picture of snowy fields on a gray day. It was also foggy. Come to think of it, all the painter’s demos sort of looked like this painting, regardless of whether he was looking at a sunny rose garden or hot light bouncing off water. Pale muddy gray, pale muddy green, pale muddy adobe. “Today I want you to set up your scene, then just use local color to put in the three main tones—a dark, a middle, a light. After that, I’ll come around to each of you, and we’ll work on breaking down each of those areas into additional tones and shapes.”
The lighting outside, being foggy, had no focus. My position on the patio had no interesting shapes. I found a mint-green enameled bucket, which I placed on the old flagstone patio near some green weeds growing out of a crack. A light, a middle, and some dark. And I squinted so that the leaves were just a blur and the stone was just a tone, and I related the oval opening of the bucket to the curve at the bottom of the bucket. And voila! Su bucket es mi bucket. French, Spanish, muddy colors, diffused light, indifference, detachment.
It was possible for me to glide out the back door early that afternoon, without anyone noticing. At my house it was actually sunny.
Face down on wood boards,
the sun on my back,
I see hoards
of bees in the holly bush.
Through the crack
between eye and hair,
I see green leaves and blue air.
I dream of clear, Mediterranean light—
neon Bougainvilla and striped
Eucalyptus growing in the sun.
No mud. No foggy landscapes.