I paint alone, I write alone, I bake bread and work in my garden alone, and find solitude as essential to my being as food and water.
But when we come together as a small group, three to thirty say, or more even, around a finite creative practice, something else as deeply integral to my well being is nurtured too.
A sense of belonging, connection, and meaning. A sense of community.
Yesterday I hosted one of my regular free plein aire paint-outs on my very doorstep, at Nepenthe, in Big Sur.
We gathered on the terrace and instead of doing a painting demo, as I usually do, we started with a brief conversation about attitude, stillness, and receptivity.
Around us hawks soared, clouds massed on the hills, and the mountains marched south into the sea. Sky and water mirrored one another, a pale silvery blue.
Instead of jumping right in, we took one minute to simply stand there in silence just soaking it all in.
Just a minute.
Breathing, seeing, listening, feeling, being.
Then, instead of immediately setting up in front of the view, I suggested we take a handful of minutes to make quick tonal thumbnails of various vantage points.
I took my own advice and found myself observing the scene from a new perspective, aware that on this particular day all the drama was in the gathering clouds.
It had been raining all night and the air was saturated with moisture. Every mountain shape was veiled by mist, emphasizing its shape over detail, and the relationship of the values in each shape progressively lightening as the ridges grew more distant.
As I began my painting, the others scattered left and right, working with watercolors, oils, acrylics, pen and pencil.
Ann spied the pond down on the Packard Ranch and captured its shimmer and shape, like an opal set between emerald meadows.
Susan’s eye went up to the eastern hills framed by old oaks, golden green now from winter rains, a favorite subject of mine to paint as well and often overlooked.
As the morning went on, in sketchbooks and on canvas lines and washes began to tell the story of curving hills and jagged cliffs and towering mountain shapes, skies merging with seas, colors moving beyond the seen to the felt.
Tom found his inspiration in an old chair in a corner, and rendered it beautifully.
Then it was time to eat. A picnic lunch followed by a gentle appraisal of the work we had done, the process of doing it, and what we saw in the paintings that we loved or thought could use some technical help.
How to make this aspect appear lighter? Surround it with darker values.
How to capture truer values when painting “plein aire”? Stand back from the work often and look at it in shade (even taking it indoors) to see if the values are reading properly.
How to keep the paint from getting all over your face? Some questions have no answers!
And then it was time to pack up our kits and head home, the takeaway more the time together and the shared stories than the actual paintings we’d accomplished. A kind of communal refueling to tackle the rigors of being an artist in a time when this kind of work is regarded by many as merely a pastime or a somewhat frivolous hobby.
To say to one another, through doing the work and supporting one another in doing the work, that this matters, that’s its worthwhile, and that it’s necessary.