sun struck

I ‘ve been silent longer than intended and here’s why. I’ve been off these past few weekends teaching landscape painting. En plein air has been much misunderstood – in my book it is one of many ways to face the process of painting, not the one holy path to truth.


But en plein air is a healthy correction to studio perceptions, and forces the painter to face the fact that the job of painting landscape is impossible. You will only, at best, seize an abstraction of the world where you place your feet. How do you humbly distill, how do you take some powerful essential from the amazing extravagance the outdoors offers? How do you pick your time – because the world changes as you stand and breathe, the shadows flicker in and out of existence. There is no single truth ever. Instead, each movement of your eye, each shift of a nanosecond, reveals another.

Time is often likened to a wind in restless motion, tugging at us and thrusting us off our feet. The world itself is changing and we don’t approve, not one little bit. It means the loss of a friend, a question about who and what we are that we thought was settled long ago. En plein air puts us in the way of such thoughts and such disturbing currents.

For this course we run brutal painting marathons in the Sedgwick Reserve of the University of California. We get up at six AM (and I am no morning person,) paint and teach until nine before I take breakfast then go back to the painting, come in for the critique around eleven, eat lunch, go back out by around three depending on whether it’s a really brutal temperature, paint until eight or nine, come in to eat dinner and critique and fall into the tent around midnight. The coyotes can usually be counted on for matins before dawn.

Fridays and Sundays are, thank God, long half-days, but Saturdays are always a thing. Husband teaches the geology and ecology of the landscape, giving lectures about the nature of the plants and earth, I teach painting with Hank Pitcher, a marvelous fellow artist whose work can be seen at . I usually come back with at least eight paintings each weekend, sometimes really big ones — those eight-footers you can see on the Sullivan Goss gallery’s website under my painting name of Robin Gowen at


So we’re estimating that temperatures the first of the weekends at Sedgwick hovered around 105 F. Roasted and toasted and blasted as well. The second was balmy by contrast – merely in the nineties. But I’m happy with the paintings.

I’m even happier with the students. I love seeing people testing assumptions and techniques in order to add to their tools and skills, and the only way to do that, is to take risks. I’ve deliberately stretched and taken many a pratfall in public to prove the point that if you do what is safe, stay upon the lines of what you already know, you cannot grow. Indeed, if you play safe within your mastery, you die.

We all move back from change, eye it with suspicion, with something that can even become fear if we don’t step into it, don’t seize upon it. But change has another meaning, and you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, because it’s true. Turned on its head change is opportunity. Out there under a blazing sun, or in the chill fog, lies opportunity.

A bird must move into the changing surge of wind; there’s a point when hesitation means destruction, where hovering is not an option. To turn back into the power of the wind is to fall.

Do I think this way when painting? You may be sure of it. The work that earns immortality doesn’t know about repetition, nor safety. It doesn’t depend upon old solutions and comfort zones. There is no ceiling and no end to it, because the work goes on forever, like the sky itself.1284 Flow of Gold II Morning's Edge 1 1299

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