2013 Hillsboro Plein Air painting at Rood Bridge Park
Painting in Rood Bridge Park

Why did I do something I knew I’d be bad at in public?

Wanting to re-open my eye

I’d been noticing that my work was in a bit of a rut. The work has been similar for a few years. Graphic, shapes, intense color. Lots of trees. I knew how to draw the basic shapes and fill in the colors. It wasn’t growing and changing as much as I wanted.

When I¬† scaled up from 9″ x 12″ to 20″ x 30″, some of the things I was doing didn’t work as well in the new size. I made two decisions. One was to shift from watercolor to oil. The other was I knew I needed to try some new things to help myself see differently. I know the secret is to SEE more than to control the technique.

Hillsboro Plein Air

I don’t paint outside. I don’t do anything near the typical representational work I see in traditional plein air. My work is about flat pattern, coming from my training in textile design.

2013 Hillsboro Plein AirI’m on the board of the Hillsboro Arts and Culture Council so I decided to try their annual Plein Air. I was a volunteer helping with the event, and I decided to try to paint. It was risky. I knew I was going to be bad at it. Most of my colleagues on the board have never seen my work, so their introduction to me as an artist would be seeing me doing something badly. Yikes.

I did it anyway.

It’s more important to me to facilitate the long term growth of my work. Besides, it helps other people be willing to take the risk to try something new when I am willing to do it too. I want to see this event grow, and to include a wider range of artists at different levels.

Overwhelmed by the Landscape

View Catcher tool
View Catcher tool

I didn’t pick the place I was painting. I wanted to be near my colleague Cynthia Herron so I could watch how she approaches the challenge. That may have been my first mistake. It might have been easier if I had picked a place that I was naturally drawn to? Not sure, but from the moment I sat down, I found the landscape to be visually overwhelming.

My usual approach is to spend time in a landscape and take a lot of photographs, which helps me identify sections and pieces. Then to allow all of that information to shift into my unconscious for a while. Only then do I go into the studio and start painting. They become landscapes of my mind influenced by what I have seen. It’s usually over days to weeks.

This event is timed. Everything has to be done during the two day time frame. I had volunteer assignments off and on, which was probably another complicating factor in my ability to focus on what I was trying to do.

Cynthia had her painting sketched out in minutes. I asked her how she did that, and always the helpful teacher, she handed me a view catcher tool. You hold it up and slide the bottom part to be either square or rectangular to help you frame what you are painting. Amazing how many tools and supplies you can miss by not doing a particular kind of art.

I started two paintings in the two hours I had. I didn’t feel ready, I felt rushed, and I pushed myself to just keep moving. The next day I worked more on one of them, in between doing my volunteer duties. Problem was, I made fundamental errors on the first day that guaranteed the painting wasn’t going to work.

Know When to Fold “Em

I started this painting without understanding the relationships of the shapes to one another. I needed to slow down and spend more time looking at the landscape rather than trying to draw something out on the page. As you can see above, the lines and shapes were off. Without the integrity in the first layer of drawing, all the subsequent layers just made it worse. I don’t usually paint foliage, so I didn’t understand what those shapes look like. I was trying to fill it in later, without looking at it. That’s not what plein air is about. It’s about seeing and interpreting what is in front of you.

This painting is never going to work. It goes in the trash. The time is better spent starting on a new piece.

 Lessons Learned

  1. If I’m going to try something new artistically, I need to focus and not try to do it between other things.
  2. I have to wait to start a piece until I understand the foundation lines and shapes.
  3. When I work from life, I need to spend more time looking at the life than looking at the paper.
  4. Failing at something teaches me more than being successful at it if I take the time to reflect.
  5. My eye is more habituated to particular ways of seeing than I realized.
  6. There will be a lot more bad art making in my future as I work to free up my eye again.


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  1. Bravo on the bravery, Christine! Thank you for sharing your reflections.

  2. Bravo on the bravery, Christine! Thank you for sharing your reflections.

    • Thanks Lori. I’m committed to being more transparent with the ups and downs, successes and failures because I see so many people not do things out of fear. There is a lot of doing it anyway in the arts if you want to improve.

  3. A lot of learning comes with repeated effort. So if you don’t get results you want one day, it’s ok, it’s just one of many days it will take to get better. Best of luck with it!


  4. A lot of learning comes with repeated effort. So if you don’t get results you want one day, it’s ok, it’s just one of many days it will take to get better. Best of luck with it!


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