WEEK 5: First World Problems

Four days before class:

WCviewfinderI grip the X-Acto knife and slice deliberately into a piece of cardboard.  I’m making a viewfinder.  I don’t know what size window to cut so, with a strong need to be prepared, I make two different sizes.  I am mildly aggravated at the lack of clear sizing and color instructions.  I am using black poster board.  Should I have used white instead?  Should I have used thicker cardboard?

Three days before class:

Grumbling under my breath, I try and try again to properly use the portable watercolor set that I spent way to much money on at the art supply store today.  For the first four classes, we’ve been using tubes of pigment and a large palette.  This time we will bWCwatercolorfieldsete painting at a park.  I struggle with these new solid blocks of color and think to myself, “Why do I have to keep learning something new all the time?  Why can’t this be easier?”

Two days before class:

With an empty gallon receptacle in hand, I stand at my kitchen sink.  My mind wanders aimlessly while an endless supply of tap water rushes into the large container.  Will I be able to carry this to the park along with all my other supplies?  Will I need to make two trips?  Will it be raining?  Will it be cold outside? Will the bugs bother me?

One day before class:

A coworker asks me to attend an investing conference where we will enjoy the privilege of hearing University students, alumni and investment professionals discuss various investment strategies.  Afterwards, we will socialize on the out-door deck on the top floor of a Washington, DC office building with a view of the Washington Monument, while being served hors d’oeuvres and sipping wine.  Sounds interesting, but it conflicts with my Friday watercolor class and if I have to chose, I’ll chose making art.  However, I am somewhat perturbed that I will have to miss the conference and I’m preoccupied with other work obligations.

The day of class:

We are setting up to paint landscapes in a local park “en plain air,” a French expression meaning “in the open air.”  We have received instruction on what techniques to use:

  • Using the viewfinder, construct a composition with at least 40 ft. of depth
  • Do a thumbnail sketch of the basic shapes of the trees, etc.
  • Mask out areas that will remain white
  • Start with a light wash – an “underpainting”
  • Build up trees, bushes, grasses and other landscape features with multiple layers, working from light to dark
  • Drop in a sky
  • Keep it light and fresh; do not overwork it

Here I am all set up, having decided on my point of view.

Despite these seemingly clear instructions, I’m still anxious about the lack of a clear outcome.  It’s too wide open.  There are too many choices.  Do I sit on my towel or use my folding chair?  Which viewpoint do I choose?  Should I go for realism or abstraction?  Do I try to imitate local color or invent my own colors where I only see green?

Landscape art is not my strength unless I’m doing photography.  Otherwise, it is just an overwhelming jumbled mess.  I’m frustrated before I even begin and it shows in my painting.

For the first attempt I play it safe.  I sketch out exactly what I see.  I try to paint the colors exactly as they appear to my eyes.  But something is off.  Something is missing.  The perspective is a mess.  My technique is too literal.  It is overworked.  The point of view is not mine.  It’s what I think it should be because I’m only using one of my senses.


My attempt at a literal landscape interpretation.


The only thing l like about this is the part that isn't a landscape (bench and brick path).

The only thing l like about this is the part that isn’t a landscape (bench and brick path).


Strike version one.  Start version two.  This time I change my point of view.  I’m looking at exactly the same thing but I decide to paint what I feel is in front of me rather than what I actually see.  My eyes tell me the landscape is green.  There are hundreds of individual leaves, reflections and branches.  My feeling tells me to ignore that.  I start applying large splotches of wet paint with sponges, dropping in layer after layer of color with an increasingly wet brush, altering the color as I go.  The color gets deeper in some spots, more vibrant in others.  And when everything is dry I go in and scrape out some highlights, finishing the way I started, with an X-Acto knife.  The technique is called “sgraffito,” and I’m beginning to think this is a technique I will use frequently.



Composition and color based more on feeling than seeing.

Detail of the sgraffito technique.

Detail of the sgraffito technique. I like this cropped, almost abstract version the best.

The finished painting is much better than the first version.  It is not perfect but I am learning to be happy with that.

The evening after class:

It is my brother’s birthday and there is a cookout at his house with his wife and 3-year-old son.  My parents are also there along with my aunt and some of my brother’s friends.  I attend …reluctantly.  I am exhausted as usual, having had too much interaction with people already this week (happy hour with a friend on Wednesday night and a talk & book signing on Thursday night).   What I really want to do is stay home and watch TV, decompressing from my oh-so-difficult week (insert sarcasm here …there is no reason why I should be too exhausted to attend my brother’s birthday cookout).

While talking to one of the guests I break a cardinal rule and jump into a political debate.  After a few minutes of back and forth he says, “Everyone just needs to do the right thing.”  Another guest and I simultaneously spout off the same response, “The ‘right thing’ is different to everyone.”

This reminds me of my viewfinder exercise from earlier today.  Two people can be in the same place and see completely different things.  Their viewfinders limit their perceptions.  They may be looking in different directions.  Or they may be looking at the exact same things but interpreting them in different ways.

There are no clear instructions.  There is no absolute right or wrong. There is only point of view and everyone’s is different.  The potential views are infinite.  Here are some other possible points of view:

  • For some people, cardboard is home.
  • For some people, money cannot be wasted on a portable paint set that might be used once or twice.
  • For some people, fresh water is a luxury.
  • For some people, a family cookout is impossible because they have been separated from loved ones by war or other means.
  • For some people, there is no food at all.

While drifting off to sleep and pondering my week, one thing becomes clear:  having too many choices is both a blessing and a curse, and it is a luxury that most of the world cannot afford.  I reflect upon my worrying, griping and minor annoyances and before slipping into a dream state, I give thanks that every single one of my problems can be solved simply by changing the way I view them.  Not everyone in the world can say the same.

This post is dedicated to my father, Philip Gabriel Lion, who passed away the day after the cookout.  I am grateful that I made the choice to spend time with loved ones that evening.



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