The moment I realized I was way out of my depth came just a few minutes into the plein air painting class I recently muddled through in Matfield Green, Kan.
By CINDY HOEDEL
The Kansas City Star
One of my eight classmates asked our instructor, renowned landscape painter Lisa Grossman of Lawrence, what medium she used.
For a second I was comforted: Apparently, someone else who had signed up for the two-day class was even less prepared than I was.
I had zero drawing or painting experience, but I knew Grossman painted expressive, abstract oil paintings of the Kansas prairie and the Kaw River.
Plus, you could see fat, pocked metal paint tubes sticking out of her giant canvas satchel. Obviously the medium she used was oil paints — hello!
Only Grossman’s answer was this: “Usually one part mineral spirits, one part linseed oil and two parts varnish.”
That turned out to be the first of many times when I felt as lost as I was in college algebra.
So why did I sign up for a master class when my lifetime art portfolio consists of a hand turkey rendered in fingerpaint and an owl carved out of Ivory soap that would be much improved by a vigorous hand-washing?
Because I wanted to sit in a field of flowers wearing a wide-brimmed hat and waving a wood-handled brush around.
As you can see, I accomplished the hat-wearing, tool-wielding bit nicely and fell way short in the rendering-a-magnificent-landscape-on-a-two-dimensional-board bit.
And yet I learned a lot.
Because that is my creative outlet. I imagine the insights I gleaned from how Grossman approaches painting could also be applied to singing or filmmaking or fashion design.
For example: Always be willing to scrap your original idea when the landscape catches on fire.
That’s what happened to us one afternoon. We were trying to capture an oddly iridescent yellowish-blue late-morning sky on a high pasture with distant mesas and a 360-degree horizon when a convoy of brawny pickups, work trucks and ATVs rumbled past, rounded a bend in the road and set the prairie on fire. The controlled burn was close enough to give us great front-row seats and distant enough that we didn’t have to flee.
The burn was not scheduled for our entertainment. In fact, we had to briefly explain to Jane Koger, the ranch owner, what we were doing on her land. She wished us well and told us to not to venture any farther up the road.
Soon, giant putty-colored smoke pillows began forming and floating up like blobs in a lava lamp.
Moments later, an orange zipper of flame opened to reveal a very Georgia O’Keeffe-looking triangle of sooty black between soft hills. Grossman greeted both developments with unbridled yelps of excitement. Without hesitation she began to deface the opaline sky she had painted minutes before.
Every creative pursuit offers an equivalent to the landscape catching on fire. Some moment when real life smashes your precious concept to bits and offers up something completely different. If you are wise, you sit up and take notice.
I learned other important principles from Grossman’s painting that apply to my craft as well.
The first day was an absurdly Technicolor morning of maxed-out contrast with gunmetal-gray clouds bumping down on ribbons of white plum blossoms and endless magenta fields of flowering henbit rimmed in electric-green grass. A fellow student asked how to avoid having way too much going on in our paintings.
Grossman’s advice was to make several small “sketches” instead of one large painting, and make each sketch about one idea: “Make it either about the exact blue of the sky or the sunlight hitting the curve of the hill or the contrast of two colors where the land meets the sky. If three things interest you, make three paintings.”
Or three stories.
The morning of the prairie-fire session, I quickly abandoned my coloring-book work to observe the true master at work. Grossman kept staring at one quadrant of her canvas with a tightness in her upper lip. I asked what she didn’t like about the painting.
“The colors are too pretty and it’s not abstract enough,” she said. That related more to Grossman’s personal, spare style than to any universal truths.
But the next thing she said was pure gold: “I really like this part down here, so I need to stay away from it, leave it alone.”
Those words, in Grossman’s pretty, clear voice, accompanied me on my drive home. “Stay away from it, leave it alone.”
Because in writing, it is so easy to keep endlessly refining and so crucial to know when to place the final period.