I can paint people, plants and things- even groups of people in conversation or groups of objects arranged in a still life. I have much more trouble painting space – from the corner of a room to the vastness of the Sierra Nevada. In fact, even photography has often failed me when it comes to the vastness of the Sierra Nevada – no single photo, or even series of photos pasted together into a panorama, can truely convey how impressively large those mountains are (how small we are).
Nevertheless, on my recent camping trip to Wright’s Lake in the Northern Sierra Nevada, I thought I could just sit at the lake for a couple hours each day and pop off some passable watercolors of the Crystal Range and their reflections. I’d be embarrassed by my audacity except for one thing. If I hadn’t had the audacity to think I might get some good ‘results’, I probably wouldn’t have had the experience of trying.
I don’t come to this lake in California’s Desolation Wilderness every summer, but have done so as often as I can for about 20 years. I’ve hiked through from one side of the wilderness to the other, where friends met us with a car, clean clothes, and fresh food. I’ve hiked in with fully loaded packs, proudly passing the guys with the stuck jeep on Barret’s jeep trail, and then circling back down a couple days later to the same trailhead, where we dumped our gear and jumped in the car seconds before the rain started. I’ve set up base camp at an unoffical camping spot on the border between the forest and the wilderness, at the car campground by the lake, and at the motel half an hour down the winding road to the nearest town. I’ve hiked those mountains in this year’s unprecedented heat, in swarms of mosquitos, when the surprise electric storms were unavoidable, when the wildflowers were in spectacular bloom of purple and gold. And yet, there were things I didn’t know until I sat down and tried to paint.
Some of those things were of course visual/spatial. I knew there were domed bolders that rose out of the lake in an echo of the mountain range on the other side. I probably could have told you that pine trees lined the lake and some of the ridges of the mountains. However, I couldn’t have told you, despite photographing it many times, that what I was conceving as one straight line of the far shore of the lake was actually two separate lines with a tiny offset in the middle where the lake went around a bend. As a result, the far side on the right was much closer than the far side on the left – and the trees, ah, the trees on the right were therefore much larger.
It’s been a mainstay line of mine that I don’t know what something looks like until I draw it. I’ve given this explanation many times in museums when bystanders wonder why I don’t just take a photo, and I used it recently in an essay on why I make art: seeing things gives me great pleasure, and I don’t fully see them until I draw them.
This was a place I had looked at, drawn great pleasure from, any number of times. But it wasn’t until now that I gave myself the pleasure of properly seeing it by drawing.
I also learned that having a daily art practice has really changed me. It has made me able to enjoy my process and learn from it, instead of coming to a grinding halt from frustration when things aren’t working out. Even though I have a commitment to make something every day that I’m willing to post to the internet, I realized I could post a bad painting as an example of how things don’t always go well, or post a picture of the macrame ‘friendship’ bracelet I had started while waiting out the heat one afternoon. In other words, I didn’t give myself a hard time for how bad my paintings were, and even when not caring didn’t miraculously lead to better results, I continued to not care very much.
Instead, I continued to play, and I learned some things about painting with watercolors. My good friend and watercolorist Anne Longo had recommended Japanese brushes with wells for water in the body of the brush, so I tried those. Anne Watkins, another fabulous watercolorist, had recommended square brushes (I tend to prefer round) so I experimented with the unfamiliar.
I played with different amounts of wetness on the page when I put down color, blotting out backwashes, trying to mix the right color for granite. I re-learned that usually when I want something darker I also want it toned down with a little of the complementary color. This was especially true in the mountains where the only bright colors are tiny flowers and on these hot days even the sky was a very pale blue. I didn’t learn anything revolutionary or come to any conclusions about the new tools I tried – but now, having gained more experience with them and gotten some bad paintings out of the way, there’s a greater possibility of something interesting happening next time. Still, I’m not going to get too focused on the results.