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September 2013



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Plein air painting and interested bystanders...

Rocky Hollow Morning, originally uploaded by Cathy (Kate) Johnson.

This has been a subject on the EDM (Everyday Matters) Yahoogroup lately, and we've touched on it in my Painting Plein Air group pool on Flickr, here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/plein_aire/, but I'm wondering how other plein air painters handle it. It depends a great deal on my mood and why I'm doing what I'm doing--sometimes I desperately need to be out alone, and when that is the case I really should have sense enough to find someplace less populous or paint from my Jeep.

Recently someone on EDM said that if it's a kid, they have extra paints and materials so the kid can paint too--I've known other artists who do that, and after a prolonged conversation with a little neighbor girl last night, I'm thinking of doing likewise. She actually asked me if she could paint too, but I wasn't prepared, just then.

That extra box of modern Prangs, a couple of inexpensive brushes and a pad of paper wouldn't be amiss, unless I'm in "travel light" mode. I'm thinking a big Ziplock bag by the front door would be OK.

Perhaps it would make a difference in a child's life, particularly one at risk, as this one definitely is. kateslover thinks so, and he got me thinking, last night.

She told me her daddy is in jail, and that she thought it was all right to take anything she wanted, no matter who it belonged to...on her OWN way to juvie, at 8, unless something happens to change that bleak future. I may be putting too much faith in art--but then, I may not.

I put in a fair amount of time working with kids at the detention camp at Watkins Mill some years ago--it was satisfying work, but I'm a lot older and a LOT more tired now, and I'll admit this is a seriously daunting idea for me! Still, I wonder...

When it's just someone passing by as we paint, though...comments like "my son can paint just like a photo, what do you think he should do?" (Um, keep painting?) or the one that really nonpluses me, "are you painting?" or "are you an artist?" Not sure what on earth to say to that.

I believe it's just a way to make contact, to break the ice, but the word that springs to mind is "DUH." Not exactly polite...

Of course when the comment is a simple "that's nice!" it's easy to just say thank you and keep working...when it's a kid or a teenager (I've always gotten along well with teenagers, for some reason) I usually ask them if they like to paint, and we get into a conversation.  I've had several nice talks with kids that looked like young gang members; people in my town tend to get nervous around them, and in groups they do tend to try to act tough, but I've had a whole circle of young guys gathered around me while I sat on the sidewalk painting and talking art.  One of them came up to me recently and asked if I remembered him from a couple of years back, doing just that...

I've done a lot of demos in public and for workshops, but when I'm Out There, painting plein air, it's generally for my own sanity. ;-) No wonder I try to seek out deserted places...that's how I ended up painting the road over the dam at Rocky Hollow the other day--there was no one else there.

So, artists...how do you feel about it? Do you want to be noticed? Do you enjoy the interaction? Do you prefer to be left alone? Do you feel threatened? Do you try to stay aware of your surroundings and the situation, as you should? Are you shy about your work? Do you want comments, or not?

How do you handle the occasional verbal onlooker?


i do not seem to get many comments, but a few summers ago i was drawing a lot in the park, over by the skate-park section. the skate punks were quite interested in what i was doing, and rather protective of me. it was amusing and rather heartwarming.. these were mostly teen-age boys and skate punks may not have the best reputation, but they were quite protective of me if they thought anyone was bothering me or being critical of my drawings.
That's sort of been my experience too, Mei! Isn't it nice? The boys at the detention camp actually enjoyed having me sketch them, and loved looking at the pictures.
Hm. I don't think anyone really likes people watching over their shoulder, unless your mind is set for a public demonstration. But in Asia, onlookers are a bit more quiet/shy, I think, and they usually just talk when you're done. But yes, occasionally there are chatty ones.

My standard answer to "Are you painting/drawing/working?" is "I'm trying." With a smile or not, depending on my mood. :D

I've always been in a house with kids (from when I was a kid myself with lotsa little sisters trailing me, then cousins, and nieces and nephews and random neighbors), so I always have a stash of really cheap art supplies-- my favorite is the forty-peso (that's about a dollar) six-pencil set of Faber Castell watercolor pencils, and a five-peso (about ten-cents) student's sketchpads. It's pretty cool. :)
Thanks for the reminder, I've got a set of those cheap watercolor pencils here somewhere, too. I like your "I'm trying" response.


This is a BIG issue for me. I have yet to actually draw in public, although I really want to try plein aire work. Well, I did draw at Borders once, at a table backed into a corner, with my purse in front of my sketchbook. Jeeeezzz, this fear seems nuts to me. What am I afraid of? A critical comment, the destruction of my fragile art ego...???
If you start, you'll feel more at ease with it as you go along. Is there a sketchcrawl group you can hook up with, or maybe you could find other artists or even just one art buddy to go out with...that's a lot of fun.
the only time i ever really felt free with my version of art was when my children were young, and i could help them with something by contributing. i have a fear of criticism, engendered by a need for perfection. i am a frustrated perfectionist, and "ancora imparo"--"i am still learning" how to let go. i find that children give us the most slack, and are prepared to enjoy whatever they are offered, whether skill, ability, or merely enthusiasm. they have not learned their limitations yet, nor do they expect limitations in those who reach out to them.

i hide most of my "stuff", and a few years ago found myself destroying the sketches and drawings from my youth. i saved a few, and one oil painting. i still have much to learn... and giving myself some slack is included in that.
I can really relate to that feeling, girl...I've always had problems dealing with anything I wasn't really good at (hence my dislike of playing chess! Want to WIN. Not good enough...and not motivated enough to learn to BE good enough.)

I think that's one thing that's been really GOOD for me, with plein air painting. I can't do work that's as "good" as studio work when I'm pressed for time, uncomfortable, and working with less than optimal conditions and material, and let's face it that's often (usually) the case with plein air painting. One reason my work looks "fresh," as people tell me, is because I hurt so bloody much sitting on that rock or root I have to hurry or flat-out quit! I just CAN'T hold myself to the same standards because of the roadblocks inherent in the process itself.

NO idea why I love it so much. ;-)

I'm soooo sorry to hear you threw away your sketches! It's really good to see the early stuff, and what we've learned in the interim. You might even learn to appreciate the work in and of itself, some spark or fresh insight...

Yep, we could both use a bit of letting go of our own expectations of ourselves, I think.
I rarely paint or draw out in public (at least not where other people are around), but from time to time I have this issue when I'm doing photography. I have a "big" camera (and when I've got my zoom lens, it's huge and probably somewhat "impressive" to onlookers :D). The question I get most often is, "Are you a professional?" Which always kind of stumps me. I'm not, although I wouldn't mind selling my photos (and I've been looking into ways to do that), so the honest answer is "no," but that's kind of a short answer. So I end up saying something like, "I'm just an amateur," or, "I just like taking pictures of birds," but then I end up feeling disappointed in myself, like I've just downplayed something that is really important to me. I'm not "just" an amateur (like there's something wrong with just taking photos because I love it). I also realize it's not the fault of the person asking the question. I think maybe it's an indication that I need to find ways to take my own work more seriously.

Or, sell a few photos so I can answer, "yes - I'm a professional." *grins*

As for enjoying the interaction? In my case, no, I almost never do. I would rather not be noticed. Then again, I'm an introvert, so I would almost rather be left alone, period. :D I do pay attention to what is happening around me, though. As a woman AND someone carrying around what is obviously an expensive camera, I don't want to be taken off-guard, especially if I'm out somewhere away from crowds of people.

I love your idea of packing a small bag of supplies for kids who might want to join you. My nine-year-old LOVES doing art, so I've always got plenty of things on hand for him to use (and sometimes we do go out places and paint or sketch together). It's never occurred to me, though, to offer those things to other children. What a great idea.

Also, your neighbor who is eight? I don't think it's too late at all. It's pretty obvious that her current role models are not doing a good job, and I do believe that children can benefit from having even one adult in their lives who shows them a different way - a way to be a good person, instead of what they might be learning at home. I suspect that just sitting with you and painting might do her a world of good. It certainly can't hurt. :)
Oh, yes, you need to ditch that "just an amateur" mindset! (Sorry for telling you what you "need" to do...my darling husband says "funny, I feel no such need..."*G*) But since you DO, yep, work on that! If you have a big, serious camera complete with telephoto lens and the willingness to lug it around to capture the images you want, you're not "just" anything!

About the 8-year-old, yes, she and her little brother really worry me. They both think it's OK to just walk into a stranger's house, too...that could be dangerous! I'm astounded their mother hasn't taught them that.

I'm very, very cranky about thieves, I'll admit--after having the house we're rehabbing broken into no fewer than 4-5 times in the past year and having all the brand new copper plumbing and the as-yet-uninstalled light fixtures stolen, I've got pretty much zero tolerance for the idea that it's OK to take whatever you want. I hope I can help turn the little cutie away from that mindset, or I'll be testifying against her in 10 years...


Plein Air Onlookers

I don't mind the occasional comment, but when people want a painting lesson, or want to tell you their life story..it gets old. My painting time is VERY limited..and I want to be able to really get into the painting. From comments like "My sister, Mother, aunt, friend...used to do art"...or "I would do art, but I can't draw a straight line!" If someone saw an individual grilling out in a park, I don't know if they would go up to the person and disturb their cooking time.

Some people have used the old "Ipod ear phones in the ear" trick. I haven't done that yet, but I may have to try that this year.

I used to accept everyone and anyone's comments..and engage in hours of conversation, even have sold a painting out there, but with my limited painting time, it is so precious to me to be out there. I think that artists carry a certain mystique...and people are naturally drawn to watching. If they only knew they could be doing the same thing! It's too bad that we have the creativity beaten out of us...but isn't that another discussion????

I have never been approached by a child..and that would be a tricky situation--as you certainly wouldn't want to discourage a young one. Bringing some cheap watercolors is a great idea. I'll have to supply my car with a little bag.

Interested in what everyone else has to say!
Nancy Patterson
Crivitz, WI

Re: Plein Air Onlookers

I know what you mean, Nancy, and have the same problem. I guess it's ironic since I make my living as an artist, but that means a lot of teaching, writing, shipping and other non-art-making activities. My busman's holiday painting jaunts are what keeps me sane and they are VERY precious to me.

Seems to me as if sometimes people think what we do is a kind of magic--which it is--and they just want to touch it. But since I spend a great deal of my life teaching, either directly or in my books, demos, and articles, I'm not really up for an impromptu class when I'm trying to paint.

It's been hard to convince some of the local folk that our sketchcrawls aren't an opportunity for free classes; the artists involved understand, of course, and we just have a ball, but other people, gallery owners and such, even insist on calling it my "class." I set that straight every time, but it keeps coming back to haunt me, and people sometimes send their friends or family for the free lessons. I hate to disappoint them and I'm sorry for the misunderstanding, but a sketchcrawl is not a free art class.

And yes, having creativity beaten out of us IS another discussion and one that makes me see red! So MANY of my students have come to art late in life because of a thoughtless comment or criticism early in their most creative years. Makes me want to reach back through time and POKE someone! Maybe we'll talk about that next week..



Most of my plein air is travel sketching (mostly around the ring of fire, the Pacific rim) & I enjoy the bystanders. I find the sketching is a great way to meet and interact with the locals. Yep, yep, yep. of course there are times when my head's full of lines or values and I find comments and interruptions annoying, but I figure I'm a guest in their country and otta play by their rules -so I take a deep breath, smile enjoy their conversation and try to get my head back in to the sketch later.
...and... like you; if I really want to be alone when plein airing here at home, I put my jeep in 4 wheel drive and easily cruse to someplace where the nearest person is well over ten miles away. Life's good here on top of the world!
Jim in Alaska

Re: bystanders

Hi Jim! I think I envy you, in Alaska! There aren't any places I can 4-wheel here, without getting permission from a landowner.

I think when I'm travel sketching I'm probably more open to interaction, too...here at home, I'm more likely to be doing it to get my head back on straight! (Unless it's one of our sketchcrawls, and then I figure it's a public event!)


Interested Bystanders

Since I am very hesitant about sketching in public, I really prefer to be left alone. Guess I dread hearing the question, "What is that supposed to be?" (LOL) While not at all a shy person, I am definitely insecure in my sketching since I'm just starting out and learning as I go.

Ms. Ernie

Re: Interested Bystanders

Well, you can always say, if someone says "THAT doesn't look like a tree!"--"It isn't. It's a drawing of a tree." :-)))

Seriously, you'll get over the shyness the more you do it, and people are usually much more supportive and interested.


Are You an Artist?

I draw in public all the time. I'm rather shy, but I don't have a lot of time, so I draw wherever I may be. When people ask "are you an artist?" I say no. I have a desire to sketch and draw, but art is too big a deal for what I do. I work with a lot of artists (both the wide and narrow definitions) and I don't really share their goals, skills, or drive.

I'm quite happy to write and putter in my journal without having to make anything wonderful or inspiring. To be honest I don't really know why I draw. I just like it, it feels right, and I still have many things learn, discover,and explore.

Re: Are You an Artist?

I like what Frederick Franck said about being an artist...paraphrasing the idea, but basically when you're making art, you're an artist. When you're cutting wood, you're a woodcutter. When you're digging ditches...well, you get the idea.

I think that is a PERFECT reason to draw. If it feels right, it is.


Oh, those trees, those colors---oh la la! I've reached the point where I can be standing surrounded by onlookers and not even notice. David tells me that I've been the subject of many Japanese tourists' videos---- this seems to happen on my sketching trips to Paris ;D. Since I'm so involved in what I'm doing, I can easily tune out attempts at conversing. I don't mean to be rude, but I've usually got a limited amount of time and I need to get done what I need to get done. I must have a fiercer look than you, Miss Kate ;D. I love your idea of sharing art supplies with your young neighbor. You never know what such an act of kindness might engender.
Well I may have pushed the colors just a wee bit, Miss Laura...*G*

I can do that sometimes, in a really public venue--airports, cafe's and such. Just not so good at it out in nature where I have gone for solace! I don't mean to be rude, but I'm pretty sure I was to the little girl that was going to try to jump OVER me, and endangering my water container (and my person) while she was at it!

With that sweet face, I'm having trouble imagining you looking fierce! You ARE considerably taller though...I'm afraid I look pretty much like one of Rein Poortvliet's female gnomes...

And I've already corraled the Prangs and the WC pencils in a plastic zipper case that came out of my new suitcase, all I need is a small sketchbook!

XO right back at you!

Edited at 2008-04-23 10:05 pm (UTC)
We've GOT to have another sketchcrawl soon! I meant to see if folks wanted to try this weekend, but it's gotten really jammed up...maybe next weekend!

AND GOOD FOR YOU, you certainly ARE an artist and a darned good one!

I'll probably try, with her...I did with the youngest boy in the family of druggies next door and that didn't work out very well, I'm afraid. Last I heard, he was in jail just like all his brothers...it's sad, it's like he didn't have a chance. A friend of mine is a middle school teacher, though, and she just saw the violence in him, not the sweetness I saw.
It makes me self-conscious to be watched while drawing or painting outdoors. The only time I felt all right about it was when I went out with a group. Somehow there is safety in numbers. The sketchcrawl groups must be lovely!

I don't know if anyone else has had this happen, but I've actually been asked (twice) to *move* out of my spot because someone (a tourist) wanted to take a photo without me in it! :p
Yes, sketchcrawls are fun!

And how funny, to be asked to move! I hope you didn't have a whole bunch of stuff to pick up! Normally our problem is having someone park right in front of what we're trying to draw. If we're sitting on the sidewalk and they're right by the curb there goes half our subject! (Fortunately the last time that happened it was one of the sketchcrawlers' husbands and we just asked him to please move till we finished!)


plein air and interested bystanders

I saw a great t shirt once with a list of answers on the back--wish I had bought it! things like "my aunt is an artist too" and "no, I don't mind if you peek." I don't mind really and have never had a bad experience. Most kids are very enthusiastic but I'm not sure I want them staying all that long. That said, if one is really interested, I think the supplies are a great idea. Judy

Re: plein air and interested bystanders

Hi Judy!

LOVE the T-shirt--I wish I had one! I'd add "Yes, I'm an artist." "All my life." "Yes, you can." "Neither can I, without a ruler..." :-))

And yes, that's true for me too--staying around can be an issue, if I'm really trying to accomplish something. I've got pretty mixed feelings about this...the particular girl is already pretty demanding, and I can imagine her knocking on the door and insisting we paint, NOW. (I'm not bad with the word "no" if I need to, though.) That said, I usually have to give up my porch time and come inside if I want any quiet. (Even if I'm reading or working rather than painting, and tell her so, it doesn't seem to compute.) Can't WAIT till my new privacy fence is finished in the back! Then if I'm in the mood for company I'll sit out front, and if not, out back.

I want to encourage, but I really don't intend to give up the little time I have for this--that's very precious to me. I wonder if having cheap art supplies on hand and GIVING them away would work...letting them take them home?

Guess it depends on how many kids were in the group! I've been thinking one at a time...

I've also had art supplies ruined by kids with attitude or behavioral problems, come to think of it--one child grabbed my VERY good ink pen (an antique) and violently hammered the nib into my palette. The responsible adult was totally UNresponsible, and I was so angry I had to go walk in the woods--couldn't even bear to be around human beings for a while...:-(

I learned the hard way not to have good materials--and SURE not antiques!--at a demo where kids will be present. A lot of them have no idea about keeping their hands off things that belong to others, in part because of interactive museums that cater to kids. I think those are GREAT, by the way, but my artist-quality supplies are not part of that.

I used to do a lot of demos at Fort Osage National Historic Site, and parents sometimes mistook me for a free babysitter, while they wandered off and left me to deal with anywhere from 2 to 20 kids. Ended up having to tell the site that I needed someone from the staff with me at all times, because I usually had two tables of stuff, including some owned by the Fort, and it just wasn't possible for me to keep an eye on everything at once.

Of course that's a long way from plein air work or our original discussion! ;-)


...were the standard equipment in University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts basic watercolor classes. What can I say, we were poor students in a third world country. :)

I had a nephew who had developmental problems and still couldn't speak at the age of ten. It was one of the years when I was out of a job and couldn't afford presents, so I sacrificed my really cheap newsprint handouts of "How to Draw Manga" and wrapped up what was left of my school art supplies, including the half-used Prang. Turns out the kid could draw. He's apprenticed now as one of the colorists in one of the local animation studio. Still can't speak, but he's okay. So yes, I do have faith in art for kids. :)

Re: Prangs

Wow...what a great story! Bless you for the change you made in that boy's life! (Hey, the box of new Prangs I have says "Prang Professional" so it must be right, eh? *G*)


Comments from Onlookers

Ha! The comment that I hate the most is - "You are so talented. I can't draw a straight line with a ruler." Or the other good one - "I can't even draw a stick man." You just want to say, "Well, have you been to a neurologist and had that checked?" Or, "Well you might want to work on improving your hand-eye coordination." I don't know - it just drives me nuts!

I'd rather not be noticed, and the best painting sessions I've ever had have been in my vehicle on a backroad or in the park at lunch!!

Re: Comments from Onlookers

Oh, yeah, I do hear the straight line one a lot!

And yep, normally I prefer to just DO it, not discuss it. :-)