2021 Virtual Plein Air Studies

For the first couple months of 2021 I did daily(ish) virtual plein air sketches of Google streetview locations via MapCrunch. I found these incredibly helpful for practice and confidence-building, below are some of the things I learned and wrote about while I was doing these. If you're interested in the Photoshop brushes I use for these you can find them in my store here on ArtStation. Thanks for looking!



I set a 1hr target for myself because I find that a useful goal to drive my decision-amaking while painting. But these usually take longer - the point isn't the time limit! It's just to help me focus on capturing the impression of a scene, without getting too caught up in details or design. In the end I take as long as I need to to feel like I've completed the thought.

One reason I'm able to tackle these fairly quickly is specific subject-matter practice. I've spent a lot of time experimenting with brushes and mark-making to find ways I can quickly capture the patterns and texture I see in nature. When "scouting" locations I look for scenes that both hook my interest and look achievable for my sketching workflow. Man-made complexity usually takes me longer, or at least I haven't learned to abstract it as successfully.

Painting is about problem-solving, and how long a piece takes is HUGELY determined by how many new problems you have to solve. When I'm able to move quickly, it's because I'm confidently applying or riffing on prior solutions. Figuring out how to render something totally new to me can take 10x longer. I've learned (mostly) to be patient with myself over the years when I do need more time to figure something out. It doesn't make me a bad artist - it just means I'm solving new problems.

I'm going to stop mentioning time in my posts actually, because I feel like we can sometimes focus on it a lot in art social media. Taken as a whole that can create an unhealthy pressure to produce "fast" work and to use time as a measure of our ability (and since we're artists, too easily of our self-worth.) But really, in order to do fast work you first have to invest time in doing slow work. I'm only able to do these studies quickly now because it's started coming naturally, I'm not forcing it out of some pursuit of speed. And that only happened because I made a conscious effort to STOP worrying about how long I take in my personal work a few years ago.



As a beginner I would rush rush rush, caught up in the thrill of making lots of marks. I thought this was "flow state," but mostly I was just papering over my lack of knowledge with mindless activity. If anything, when I hit challenges, I would paint and repaint even faster, thinking that somehow my hands would eventually solve the problems that my mind couldn't (or didn't want to) engage with.

As my skills and style developed, I became much more thoughtful about individual marks and details in my work. At first this was really healthy for me. But at some point I overshot, and it became really paralyzing. Instead of moving forward in a painting, I would find myself second-guessing and obsessing over a lot of very small decisions - out of fear of messing up and failing to uphold a specific style and quality in my work. I could still eventually finish pieces, but I started to really dread it - *especially* with personal work.

Three things made these MapCrunch dailies so helpful and fun for me - the rough time limit, the daily-ish repetition, and the random and unstaged nature of the material. This makes the exercise itself spontaenous and imperfect, so I don't get nearly as precious with each individual study. It frees my brain to just focus on deep observation and capturing as much information and emotion about the scene as I can - which results in me working at a much more comfortable and fun pace.

I think flow state in painting is about achieving a working pace that lets you be careful without becoming precious, and expressive without throwing accuracy to the wind. I still don't always get there - but I find the most success when I take my time starting out, unhurried, and then slowly build momentum as my brain warms up and my observations deepen. Too slow and precious and you won't get anywhere, too fast and mindless and you'll stall out - or make a lot of progress in the wrong direction.