UART Tip #35: “Socially Distant Painting During Covid-19” with Doug Tweddale

To the artist, social isolation can be viewed as a gift of time and space to create art.   Even though I am now retired, I often chafe at the schedule I usually keep in my “normal world”.  Attending to the routines and events of a busy life, I have yearned for more unstructured time to paint.  I seek the wonderful feelings of timeless space and the all-encompassing focus it takes to do a painting.  When all has gone well at the completion of a painting, I may be physically tired, yet always feel emotionally invigorated.  COVID-19 brought about the need for social distancing and caused normal routines and activities to fall away. This is a perfect scenario for an artist to guiltlessly pursue creative endeavors.

The latest indicators reflect that things will not return to normal soon.   We all suffer in different ways from social distancing and financial uncertainty.  Personally, I have turned to my art as a way to make “lemonade out of lemons”. First, I was drawn to sort through the many stacks of old paintings I have done.  As I looked at them, I found some that held promise yet were somehow missing something. I enjoyed reworking them, bringing a renewed perspective to these lost and wayward paintings.  I noticed the evolution of my art with this endeavor.

Since I am primarily a Plein Air painter, I was called to the outdoors a few weeks later as the weather got warmer.

One of my favorite spots for Plein Air work is a place near the Delaware River, slightly south of Point Pleasant, PA.  The site is along River Road with a small parking area off the main line of traffic.  The area used to be a quarry in colonial days. They would split rocks, haul them down a hill and load them onto river barges on the Delaware Canal. I imagine many Philadelphia and area buildings were built with stone from this quarry. Natural erosion, along with man’s harvesting of the stone, has carved a deep gorge that has a small stream and two waterfalls flowing over multiple rock ledges. This quarry is one of the forgotten places that is solitary and peaceful. The gorge is filled with beautiful tumbled boulders that present a challenge for the artist to simplify.

Here is my first painting from this area.

As you see from the photo, there is a jumble of rocks and the water snakes it way through on multiple paths.  The challenge of this painting was creating a dark surrounding to help accent the moving water.  Also, I added warmer colors in the foreground rocks.  I began with a sketch and then applied a watercolor underpainting technique learned during years of study with Albert Handell.  You can see, some of the areas show the watercolors with minimal pastel.  This was my first painting in the gorge, and I knew I had to return.  During subsequent sunny days, I returned to the gorge for a series of paintings.  Each day, I found lots of diverse views that interested me and each day I was inspired by the beauty of the gorge. Here is my second painting.

This painting was also done with a watercolor underpainting and again the darks were necessary to highlight the water flow.  Here is a painting of the larger waterfall.

In this quarry, the rock layers are tilted, and this creates some interesting perspective.  For this painting I had to simplify the rock layers and push my darks and warm lights to show the effects of the sun on the scene.  The water flow unifies the scene and modifies what could be too geometric and repetitive.  You can see how the natural splitting and layering of the rock made this an ideal location for a quarry.  Here is another waterfall painting.

I love the way the water finds its own level and path through this painting.  As I painted it, I had fun tracking the paths and balancing the color of the water to have primary and secondary flows to create unity and balance.  Notice how the more distant rocks on the left are colored with strong blues and purples and then progress to the warmer grey rocks on the right.  While painting the waterfall areas, I looked to my right and I saw a cliff face lit up with the morning sun.  I noticed that this light faded greatly after 12:00pm, so I decided to come back on the next sunny day in the morning to capture this beautiful and challenging scene.  Here is my morning’s effort.

There is so much to explore in this gorge.  One sunny morning, I was inspired by an amazing sight of water falling over rocks as sun lit up and warmed the leaf-covered ground nearby.  The warm ground colors where a striking contrast to the purples and blues in the rocks.  When I saw this scene for the first time, it felt like opening a special, surprise Christmas present!  Here is my finished painting named “Sunlit Falls”.

To date, I have done about 15 paintings at this quarry.  Each time I go, I see another aspect of this place and absorb the tranquility and nature sounds as I paint.  I’ve enjoyed this series so much that it has brought me to a deeper contemplation of what it means to me to be an artist. The most exciting thing for me is to enjoy a scene in ways that maybe only an artist can.  It is that “artist eye” that sees unexpected beauty.  When I look at my past paintings, I know exactly where they were done, the time of year, the weather of the day and the feelings I had being there. I remember a bird’s song or the sound of a stream or the ocean.  Creating a Plein Air painting, I get the privilege of standing at a spot for hours, watching the light change and drinking in the surroundings at the scene.  I become so absorbed that I become part of the place beyond the limits of my self-identity.  This “getting lost beyond self” is what I enjoy most about painting.  Time has no meaning and I enter a super aware meditative state, where I connect with the tiniest of happenings and the beauty of a place.  All my other thoughts and concerns fall away as I focus on the scene and how to paint it.  I step into an inner space of timeless dialogue between myself and the scene.  It is a gift of art I appreciate each time I am out.  I feel blessed and privileged to do this.

I also appreciate my art in a larger sense. Thousands of people might have walked by the scene I am painting without noticing it. They are in their own world, thinking their thoughts, focusing on their inner dialogue, and missing the beauty right there before them.  My Plein Air painting offers me the opportunity to find the subtle, unexpected beauty of a scene which I otherwise might have missed. I have the privilege of seeing it and capturing my vision of it in a painting.  People who look at my work and may then see it themselves and together we have just made the world a more beautiful place.  It is beauty captured in a moment, in physical form, framed in perpetuity.

I continue to be in awe of this whole process and so grateful that my calling is to be an artist. I’m grateful to my Great Uncle Lester Gallagher for mentoring me to paint at age seven.  I appreciate all the many fine artists and teachers I have met over the years.  What a blessing!

I hope you are also finding inspiration in your art during this time of sorrow, illness and fear.  Now more than ever we need to make beauty for the world while loving our earth and the people that surround us.

In appreciation of you,

Doug Tweddale

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