Last week, I went out for my first plein air session of the warm season. It was a glorious spring day- the birds were signing, the sun was shining- and although I've been plein air painting for close to a decade, I found myself a bit at loose ends.
To start off, I didn't have a clear idea or strong feeling about where I wanted to paint, I just knew I wanted to be outside. When that happens I usually just head out, start to get a feel for the day, and then choose a site that seems like it will fit the conditions. On this day, I bounced from location to location, not getting inspired and starting to worry about loosing the light.
When I finally committed to a location, I still wasn't sure it would work. But I was resolved to paint, so I set up my easel in the first good spot I found and began looking for a subject. This was my first mistake of the day. Searching for inspiration is not the way I like to work, but forcing myself to settle down seemed like the only way I was going to paint. So I pushed on.
With my easel setup and sketchbook ready, I spent some time listening to the birds and scanning my surroundings for something, anything, that would catch my eye. The marsh in front of me had good light, but I wasn't sure it was enough to base a painting on. It was then that I noticed two Mallard ducks quietly foraging. As they paddled and tipped under the water, they created lovely ripples that would catch the light and reflect the blue of the sky. I thought, here is something interesting to paint! Maybe? I wondered.
I knew painting the ducks would be hard. They were constantly moving, and I knew I'd have to work quickly because they could leave at any moment. I decided to skip the sketch and go right to the painting (something I don't like to do, but have done in the past when needing to move quickly). I selected a small piece of paper, just 5x7" and hurriedly tried to decide whether to use a portrait or landscape orientation.
Even as I turned my paper this way and that to determine the best approach, I knew I was making a mistake. I was not in the headspace to take on such a challenging subject. Still, I pressed on. By the time I taped my paper to the board, the ducks had moved behind some trees. 'No problem', I thought, 'they'll be back'. While I waited, I listened to the birds and tried to identify a few. At some point while I was distracted, the ducks reemerged. Finally noticing them, I picked up my pastels and furiously began working. About five minutes later, I was most of the way through my underpainting when the ducks suddenly picked up and flew deeper into the marsh where I could no longer see them.
Feeling disappointed and frustrated, I sat at my easel for a moment, trying to decide if that was it. Maybe I could paint the marsh and create the ducks from memory? I added a few lines of blue sky reflection to see if I could continue, but quickly determined that was a bad idea (successfully avoiding mistake number three). So I packed up my gear ready to call it a day.
Resigned to the fact that today would just have to go down in the books as a loss, I thought I'd at least finish going down the trail. After all, it was a gorgeous day. I got about 40 feet when inspiration struck: there was a beautiful scene overlooking the same marsh in a different direction.
I hemmed and hawed about setting up again, finally deciding I didn't want to "waste" the trip. I got out my gear and wound up spending a happy time painting the scene. This time it felt calm, peaceful and settled.
At first I congratulated myself on finally "getting it right" on this trip. But in thinking more about these two back-to-back experiences (they were literally back-to-back since I could turn and see the spot I'd just been painting in) it was a good reminder that failing is okay because it helps you find (or remember) your process. While it's not always followed by immediate success, as it was on this day, and while it sure would have been nice to avoid the mistakes, giving ourselves permission to try things that might not work out is how we grow as artists. The day wouldn't have been a "waste" if I hadn't found my inspiration. Sometimes it's just about struggling, failures, and abandoned attempts. Maybe I'll paint the ducks another day, maybe I won't. Either way, I'm glad I tried.