STORY and PHOTOGRAPHS by FRIDERIKE HEUER
THE EMAIL CAME OUT OF THE BLUE, from someone I did not know. They liked the way I describe my encounters with the world. Would I be interested in documenting how they see theirs?
Of course I would! How can you not take the opportunity to go to the coast and spend a day with an intrepid band of painters who are out there every summer for a two-week PaintOut, rain or shine? Meeting at various locations, including Seal Rock, Ona Beach, Rocky Creek State Park, Yachats North Shore and the old Yaquina Head Lighthouse? Painting, critiquing, freshly exploring a familiar landscape every year or being stunned (or stumped) by it for the first time? Receiving instructions from a veteran art professor, Erik Sandgren, as enthusiastic about teaching as about the act of painting itself?
Off I went to Depoe Bay, not knowing what to expect, but curious how such a collective approach to making art would work. Spoiler alert: It works great. And I had the best day. The weather gods were kind, nature conspired to show off as only nature can, bald eagles on their way to lunch, pelicans on patrol and ambling oyster catchers included.
More importantly, I met a number of artists who were not only engaged with what they were doing, but who had nothing but positive stories to tell: how practicing their craft outside was a godsend during the pandemic, because they could interact, talk, escape isolation, and nurture friendships. Many of the people who participate in the annual PaintOut workshop, traveling there from all over the place, continue to practice some form of it with likeminded painters back where they live on a regular weekly schedule, ever more improving the facility and skill with the medium.
Speaking of which, there were water colorists and oil/acrylic painters on site, spread across various locations, making me feel, while wandering through the park, like I was on a treasure hunt — you never knew what sight awaited you while rounding the next corner, or taking a fork in the path. All were enrolled in the three-day paid tutorial that Sandgren offers, tackling specific tasks and problems that arise with landscape painting, with lectures followed by painting session and then a late-in-the-day critique round that helps tie theory and practice together.
Starting with Day Four, the meetings are open and free to all, with each day having a specific site announced and anyone who is serious about painting, no matter the level of their expertise, can join the fun. There will still be a conversation about work in the afternoons, but more of a free-for-all, from what I understood.
Some of the attendees have been coming for decades — the workshop started in the late 70s, initiated by the Oregon artist Nelson Sandgren, Erik Sandgren’s father, long before the “en plein air” movement saw its recent renaissance in this country. Several artists told me that this annual trip is one of the highlights of their year — and I have to apologize that I did not catch every name, or associate it with the right face: I was so busy learning, admiring, photographing and trying not to lose my notebook in the wind that I was remiss about taking detailed notes for everyone.
Landscape painting evolved from being a backdrop to religious, mythological or historical themes to becoming a genre important in and of itself only in the late 19th century. Instead of inventing a landscape or creating something from memory, people started to go outside and document their own perceptions of the way the land looked, a sensory reality that was soon imbued with their own emotional reaction, dependent on how skillfully one managed to get those feelings across. En plein air, a French phrase meaning “in the open air,” anchored the painter — and the painting — in a particular place and a particular time, advancing an understanding and often an appreciation of nature. Or the place you lived. Or both. Some plein air painters, like Théodore Rousseau, for example, even became environmental activists, fighting for the ecological preservation of their habitats.
Painting outside is easier, of course, if you live in a place that has reasonably good weather, in contrast to the Nordic countries, where landscape painters were known to have to tie their easels down and schlepp large umbrellas against the rains. And talking about schlepping: It was chemistry and technology that enabled people to move beyond the realms of their studios. Bostonian John Goffe Rand’s 1841 invention of the paint tube transformed the practice. Rather than grinding and mixing your own pigments with binding agents, you could use directly from the tube; maybe thin it, but there it was. Add to that a portable easel: The French box easel was easily carried, set up on telescopic legs, and had palette and paint box attached. Finally, the development of synthetic pigment allowed a whole new palette to emerge. Vibrant shades were now easily available, and soon incorporated into what we now know as Impressionism. (Ref.)
Modern gear has obviously advanced. But the engagement with nature has remained the same — a desire to describe, but also awe that takes you away from the easel if special admiration is required. As it was on my visit when the whale surfaced, even for the smallest amounts of time. I find it always curious how exited I become — and obviously it was shared excitement — when I get just these tiny glimpses of something dark or grey, there and gone in the blink of an eye. Our brain obviously provides the rest of the story — the thought of the humongous body attached to that small curve, the knowledge of how special these animals are and how deserving of our protection of waters that see ever more pollution, dangerous increase in temperature, and shrinking feed base.
The more immediate, however, also captured my attention — the landscape’s colors, water and cliffs, challenging for the photographer’s eye just as much as for the painter’s,
the varied flora,
the trees so clearly hammered by harsh winds and salt in the air.
And of course, there are always unexpected odds and ends.
ERIK SANDGREN IS A GREAT STORYTELLER, something that I have always associated with gifted teachers. He got his B.A. at Yale in 1975, and earned his MFA at Cornell University in 1977. From 1989 until five years ago he taught, single-handedly, art at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington, with a special interest in a Foundation course that allowed him to convey the basics to students, for many of whom this was the first serious encounter with art. He is widely traveled, and entertained me with an anecdote about an encounter with a museum bureaucrat in Germany who first insisted on the rules of access (Forbidden! Later!) only to break them five minutes hence by opening the doors for Sandgren, on a short break between trains, banging on the doors, to the holy archives of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. I could not help but adore the big smile with which Sandgren confronted this German, yours truly, with the stereotypes about Germans and the approval that they could be defied, apparently. Even more so since the desired archival visit concerned Horst Janssen, enfant terrible and somewhat famous artist during my young adulthood in Hamburg, known in particular for his uncensored erotic watercolors there, but as a fabulous printmaker internationally.
Janssen writes in the introduction to Phyllis:
“The mechanism of love requires ambition, serious effort, patience and wit. The observing eye is then required for the implementation of this mechanism, which divides the whole into its parts, subdivides it, on the one hand increasing it by adding a lustful gaze to the pleasure of the understanding hand, on the other hand for the control of pleasure.”
Seems to me we could apply that to art just as well.
Here is a photomontage of a photo I took of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, for a series, Postcards from Nineveh (2019), calling for the protection of our oceans, mixing 17th century Dutch paintings and drawings of whaling expeditions with photographs of contemporary landscapes, mostly from the U.S., and some from my native Germany, to show that 400 years later the need for environmental stewardship is still pressing.
I am lingering on this little anecdote because it seems to encapsulate what I glimpsed in this first visit: someone with a deep interest in art, willing to pursue it; a clear understanding of human psychology — including the rule-obsessed German one; and just a lot of curiosity.
Much of it makes its way into his own paintings, particularly the public art murals that embody social issues as well. Ideas about psychology can also be found in his teaching. As always, he prepares for the annual PaintOut by taking notes across the entire year when he runs into problems to be solved while painting, or encounters topics that might be of interest, or tries to find ways to help students overcome obstacles.
This time around he decided to try something new: ask participants in the workshop to sketch what was in front of them while simultaneously listening to his lecturing. By his reports, the resulting sketches were freer, more refined than what had been produced earlier. Why would divided attention achieve those results? Why might multitasking in this way help? Or does it, wonders the cognitive psychologist?
The most straightforward assessment predicts a mixed result. On the negative side, many of us have had coaches, or piano teachers, who would admonish us to “pay attention to what you’re doing!” Presumably that advice rested on the idea that, in the absence of focused attention, we would rely on well-established habits that could be implemented without much thought. The result? A mechanical, soulless performance.
But that concern gets balanced by considerations that point in the opposite direction. Often anxiety and self-consciousness can disrupt and inhibit performance. Distraction can diminish those concerns, leaving us less inhibited. Likewise, sometimes we approach a problem with strongly held, but ill-advised presuppositions. Distraction can help us to loosen our hold on those presuppositions, opening the path toward novel and more successful approaches.
I do not know of any clear science that would help us understand how these opposing forces play off against each other. Surely it depends on the details of the circumstances. Even so, the idea that divided attention might help is entirely plausible.
We should note, though, that there has been some silliness written on the topic. Years ago, various authors advised that you need to “liberate your right brain” in order to be creative, and this meant somehow shutting down your left brain, presumably the locus for analytic thought. I won’t bore you with the details, but the conception certainly overstates and distorts the specialized capacities of the two brain hemispheres. More importantly, this perspective completely misrepresents the interaction between the brain halves. The halves of your brain are not cerebral competitors. Instead, they interact in complex and productive ways. It is unclear what could possibly be meant by the prospect of shutting down one half or the other. Both brain halves contribute to creative processes.
In any case, the best thing, as far as I could see, about that entire workshop was the fact that product — a finished painting — did not score above process, the way of making art in this indescribably beautiful landscape, among soulmates, with a gifted guiding hand. Or brain, as the case may be.
I drove away filled with envy, reminding myself that I can still photograph, and always have the choice of picking up painting in my next life … in the meantime, what a spectacular view!
Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on July 20, 2022.