We All Need a Go To Subject
Apple - first painted with a knife, second with a brush
Do you have a go to subject? I’ll bet you do. If you’re a musician, there’s probably a piece you go to when you aren’t playing well and need to get back into it. If you love to cook, you’ve likely got a go to recipe or two, comfort food for your brain and stomach. If you’re a jogger or bike rider, there must be a trail or road that attracts you when you’re not feeling on top of your game. Whatever you like to do for pleasure, I’ll bet you’ve got a go to subject, one that’s familiar and comforting.
As for me, I've got go to painting subjects. I turn to them when things aren’t going well or I haven’t painted for a while. Apples are a favorite. They’re so cheerful and even more so on a green background. When I need to practice, I grab a few apples. And then I eat them after the painting is done.
Lobster boat sketches first, Diligence - 6"x6" oil on canvas board, second
You won’t be surprised to hear that boats are also a go to subject for me, especially for drawing practice. I love to sit on the dock or on our boat, and watch the other boats swing around on their moorings. Though moving, they give me the same view every 30 seconds or so. I have to be fast with my pen or wait until the next swing.
Sunflowers - painted with gouache first, and oils second
Another go to subject for me is sunflowers, especially those with leaves. I love their chunky shapes and bright colors. They come with different colored centers, from green to ochre to brown. I like to get them in the light with shadows on their faces, or in a bunch in a vase. There aren’t many things more cheerful than a sunflower. They are just right when I need cheering up.
What Does Down East Really Mean?
Clinker Built - 6"x8" oil on canvas panel
Each summer we take our boat down east from Yarmouth, ME, for a 10-12 day voyage. We visit harbors that we love and try to find someplace new to visit each year. Often we meet up with friends on their boats. It’s an idyllic time if the weather cooperates, and somewhat of an adventure if not.
Clinker Built, the painting above, was a tender to a lovely sailboat that we saw in the harbor at Isle au Haut, at the bottom Merchants Row, south of Deer Isle. I’ve drawn and painted this boat lots of times, she’s such a classic.
Ruby - 5"x7" oil on gessobord
We split our time between harbors with villages, restaurants, and shops, and out of the way anchorages with only birds as companions. And of course, we see lots of other boats, both working vessels and pleasure craft. I love to draw and paint both types, and they were my chosen subjects for the holiday paintings for my galleries this year. These are at the Drawing Room in New Bedford.
Ruby is moored in the little harbor that houses Billings Marine, near Stonington on Deer Isle. I don’t know the boat’s name, it was too far away from our mooring, but I loved the color, which gave me a name for the painting.
Sailing Dinghies - 8"x10" oil on canvas panel
Just outside the inner harbor at Christmas Cove, we often see a sailing class. The kids bop around in their Optimist prams, a very popular boat for teaching children. I had to put together a few photos to create this painting, making sure to get the sizes right to make some farther away than the others.
And back at our neighborhood dock someone had left the nice dinghy in the painting below tied up at the float. I was able to get a few good photos before they rowed it away.
Dinghy Color - 6"x6" oil on canvas panel
But what about the whole down east thing? We say we’re sailing down east when we go up the coast of Maine because the coast goes in an easterly direction. The wind is generally from the southwest, so we sail down wind. Thus it’s called heading down east. And down east Maine to me is the area starting at Penobscot bay, and beyond towards Canada.
AFTER - Thomas Point - 6"x6" oil on canvas panel - 2010
There is no better way to get better at something than to practice. We’ve all learned how to ride a bike and drive a car, and we learned by practicing, falling down, and probably getting our first traffic ticket.
But there’s more to it than just practice. How I practiced made a huge difference in becoming a better painter. The three principles described below were key. I think you can find analogies to them for anything you want to learn, such as cooking, or playing an instrument. You can see the change in my work through the paintings I’ve used to illustrate this post. There is about a year difference between the Before and After paintings, and during that time I used the techniques described here.
AFTER - Farm Pond Pines - 6"x 6" oil on canvas - 2010
First, you'll have the most effective learning experience if repetition of the whole process is part of your approach. For painting, it's best to paint several small paintings from start to finish each week, spending a short time on each one. Spending many hours on one painting doesn't build the muscle memory that the previous approach gives you, and you'll never become comfortable with the parts of the process that are hard for you. If you have stacks of partly completed paintings sitting around, it's likely because you're getting stuck, and you know what I mean! The same can be said for that piano piece that I can play the first page of so beautifully, and when I get to the last page, I’m slogging my way through it with lots of mistakes.
BEFORE - Afternoon Shadows - 6"x6" gouache on paper - 2009
Second, it’s easier to capture the form in space when working from life rather than from photos. Going from three dimensions to two works best when you do that with your own eyes, rather than relying on your camera, because the lenses in your eyes are so much better. I’m not sure what the analogy is here for playing an instrument, unless it’s playing a real piano rather than an app. Perhaps for baking, it’s doing that from scratch rather than from a mix.
BEFORE - Gilsland Trees - 6"x6" oil on canvas panel - 2009
And finally, it helps in your exercises to paint a subject that's of interest, but isn't something that's really important to you, or that you've promised to paint for someone. Adding that stress subtracts from the learning experience. This is why, when I’m doing exercises, I divide my canvas into four parts. When I do that, it's no longer a frame-able picture, it's purely an exercise, and a weight comes off my shoulders. I know this works for cooking. There’s nothing more stressful than making something for the first time for a dinner party!
Bobbi - Painter. Sketcher. Teacher. Boat and Dog Lover.