Just a few months ago, I was standing at an easel on a sunny day in Limoux, France, studying an old French villa with an orange tree outside of it. I could picture myself within the walls of the villa. I could smell the vivid scent of the oranges adorning the tree. I could feel my skin soaking up the warm September sunlight.
I had only a brief time at that easel; hardly enough time for the full scale painting I wanted to create of this magical scene. So I grabbed an 8x10” board and sketched the scene with my paints, not worrying about perfection nearly as much as the encapsulation of the senses that were stimulated by what I was seeing: the colors; the light; the details of the walls.
I was doing what many an artist from Leonardo to Sorolla has done before me: Using my time spent en plein air to capture quick studies that will later inform my studio paintings.
The goal in these “sketches” isn’t mastery. It’s memory. It’s capturing the cues that will spark recognition when we’re far from France, or whatever pocket of the world you’d like to be transported to at any given time.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve painted from photographs before -- and I still capture photos to complement the sketches I’m creating en plein air. But painting from a painting doesn’t just give me something to look at that reminds me of time spent in a particular place; it gives me the internal pictures, the scents, and the feelings that went along with being there.
Sketches as a time capsule
With quick sketches from nearly each place I visited in France, I can now take a journey from the warmth of my home studio on the cold, blustery, and snowy winter days in the Finger Lakes of New York at any time I choose. I can immediately be transported back underneath that bridge in Limoux or in a garden with orange fruit growing. I’ve captured the colors, the reference points, and the feelings that will allow me to return to that place and create the work I didn’t have time to do while actually on the spot.
Like a writer leaving off mid-sentence, creating these sketches gives me a natural starting point to pick up right where I left off, in a world very different than the one I might be standing in in the present moment.
Pas de peur; pas d’égo
I’ve got a new series going now based on my plein air sketches from France, and I’m excited for what this process of sketching might allow for future work -- but most importantly, I’m incredibly fulfilled by the fact that in this moment, I’m painting to paint. I’m not painting for approval. I’m taking on the true French way of being: Pas de peur; pas d’égo. No fear; no ego.
The voice in the back of my head -- the one asking, “Is anyone else going to like this?” -- is silenced. With my sketches and memories in hand, I can create paintings that express themselves without fear; without ego. The way true art is meant to be created; the way I hope all artists learn to live.