I paint from life, alla prima, wet on wet, from start to finish if at all possible. I prefer to complete a painting outside on-site, but sometimes I like to bring it indoors halfway through and work on it away from the scene. Once in a great while, I make a painting completely in the studio, but only if the weather keeps me indoors, or if I choose a large canvas or panel and the painting takes several days, or if I want to work from my imagination or memory, or from a photograph or drawing. I don’t wait for layers of oil paint to dry or use glazes. Instead, I keep my brushes clean and put paint right on top of the paint, or more likely, work in a coloring book kind of way. First, I sketch out the main elements of the painting with a brush full of thinned burnt sienna, and then I paint all the other colors afterward, adjusting as I go, wiping out and repainting if I need to. The painting is done when it’s done, when everything is colored in, so to speak, and feels just right. For me, that moment is a definite sensation, almost a sound, like a little garden gate clicking shut. When I reach that point, I put the brushes down and rarely go back into a painting unless some minor detail looks wrong to me the next day. But even if it does, I will almost always start a new painting instead of going back to rework the old one.
And the subject matter? I choose realism and direct observation. I want to represent nature with love and be part of nature through the active participation of painting. I’ve been working from and with the landscape for most of two decades. When I began, I often painted from photographs. Subsequently, I became used to looking at small scenes (the photographs) and making them bigger on canvas rather than looking at large scenes (the real place, nature, The Big Everything) and making them smaller on canvas. I wanted to turn it around once I realized what I was doing. This is not a criticism of painting from photographs. I still do so from time to time, and I don’t think there’s any wrong way to make a painting, but I can only speak to what I need to do to make a painting. I also knew I was using my smallest brushes too much, and I knew I was indoors too much. I wanted to be out in the middle of everything a lot more, painting from life, attempting to distill the vast scene into some elemental truths. I wanted to set the photographs aside and be there myself. Now I rarely paint from photographs. Outside is too good.
Often when I set out to paint, I go to a particular place I love and see what’s happening there that day. Sometimes I take a look, and a quiet feeling of rightness arises, along with a trusting sensation and the temporary suspension of fear about my inabilities. Sometimes I quickly glance and look away again to not startle the idea or the scene. No sudden movements! But overall, the first look is about forming the steady feeling that nature is asking to be painted. I respond, and we work together, and I feel supported by the universe. Sometimes I get the feeling while painting of being observed in return by what I’m observing. The sensation is eerie, yes, but it’s also comforting beyond words because it includes belonging and connection. It is wholeness, in a word, as I engage with the world through painting.
When I encounter it, I stop worrying about whether or not what I paint is relevant to the world at large, the microcosm of the art world, or the micro-microcosm of the local art world. I paint what I most want to paint, what I love and respect, what is asking to be painted, and trust that it’s the right thing to do. For years I’ve said Thank you when I finish a painting and leave the scene. And lately I’ve started asking permission to work there, when I first arrive. The subject matter is ostensibly the landscape, but to me, it’s everything.
If I do question my decisions regarding the subjects I paint, I remind myself that subject matter and style are personal, and the more personal they are, the better. I think a painting, or any work, approaches greatness when it’s the most “you” you can possibly make it. I have to, must, follow my instincts and believe in what I’m doing.Trusting oneself and the mysterious process of painting: therein lies uniqueness, development of style, and alignment with personal truth.
The thin line that exists between a cliché and a timeless motif is not something I fret over anymore. I used to.The coast, the sea, the islands, the mountains, everything here has been written about and painted and then painted again by some of the world’s great artists and authors, and lots of others besides. I think,Yes, that is a wonderful thing. But it doesn’t mean that my experience here, today, is not valid and relevant too.This is my home and always has been. I believe that nature is and will remain one of the great themes of painting. The landscape, the turning of the world, and the rising and setting of the sun and moon, will always be relevant. And we humans are part of nature, not separate from it. We’re in this together.
I paint nature and myself at the same time. I’m a landscape painter because what I see and experience out in nature mirrors my internal landscapes, with their times of clarity and calm, spectacle and difficulty, tension and peace, and the whole range of what we are capable of feeling. Then comes the reconciling of these apparent dualities into a totality—into that wholeness. Working with the landscape helps me come to terms with myself and the natural ways of the world. Not to understand them, at all, but quite the opposite: to know them, to accept them, and to align myself with them. I believe that paying this kind of close attention to the world is a form of witnessing and even radical activism. Nature demands we pay attention and act for the good.
How much do I invent in paintings (besides all of it . . .)? My paintings are a balance between what’s actually in front of me and around me, which is often just the starting point or the framework, and what emerges from my intuition or imagination. I often change sky colors, the positions and forms of other islands, clouds, and currents or lack thereof in the water. I foreshorten. I zoom in like a telephoto lens. Or I zoom out for the maximalist view, the whole bay. The longer I work on a painting, the more the requests and demands of the painting itself increase. I start to pay attention to them, rather than simply complete a representation of the scene, as good as that can be all by itself. Although, after painting for all these years, I’m sure landscape painting is never just that alone. I like to say: “Landscape painters, otherwise known as painters.” Landscape painting shows more than the landscape because nature + the painter = something extra and intangible, incorporating as it does the inner life with the outer. To clarify: I usually begin with a straightforward description of the outer–tree, rock, island, light–because some line or shape or relationship or energy is speaking to me, and I want to respond, to answer. Then halfway into the painting, I find myself no longer looking at the landscape.The painting becomes about what’s happening in paint on its own surface, as something coming into being, and what’s happening in my heart.
Excerpts from the appendix entitled “Painting the Paintings” in my recent self-published memoir Autobiography of an Island about painting on and with Bear Island in Penobscot Bay.
Image at top: Sarah Faragher, Sunset Over Little Spruce Head Island, From Piggy’s Point, Bear Island, Maine, oil on panel, 10 x 8 in., 2017.