"It is a curious fact that out-of-door nature is to the beginner an enormously overloaded 'property room.' He sees, for instance, the myriad of leaves upon the tree long before he sees the tree at all. " - John F. Carlson
A lot of beginning painters tend to get bogged down in detail. They fasten on a particular area and slave over it endlessly until it's overpainted. Other times, they focus on the one thing that they can do well, to the detriment of everything else.
I remember painting once in a Scott L. Christensen workshop. I was new to plein air (outdoor) painting. Scott took our entire painting group to a beautiful Idaho vista looking out over the Snake River. Simply breathtaking.
Scott told our group that we had 20 minutes to paint the scene. Then we would be moving on to another location. What ensued was somewhat comical. The more experienced painters set about their work, quickly brushing in the basic shapes and colors of the area. Many of the less experienced painters became a blur of commotion. Juggling their easels and squeezing out paints.
Unfortunately, I was among the newbies. Inexperienced with both my equipment and painting, I fiddled with my gear and scrambled to begin. Looking around, I felt intimidated by how quickly others were working.
I squeezed out my colors, hurried to sketch an outline and begin my painting. Then I spilled my mineral spirits on my palette. And knocked over three brushes into the dirt. Determined, I cleaned up and continued the start of my painting. Which was about the moment Scott Christensen called out "time!" At that point, I was ready to scream.
The group was instructed to pack up their gear, load their cars and follow him to the next location. And it went like that for half the day.
Needless to say, I learned a valuable lesson about both the organization of my equipment and how to paint quickly. If there is a moral to the story, it would be this: Deal with the boulders before the pebbles. In other words, tackle the big ticket items first before you focus on the small stuff.
Painter Sergie Bongart said it best: "It is entirely possible, and often advisable, to spend 90% of your time merely adjusting the big, simple shapes before ever moving to the rendering.”
Over time, I learned to lay in the big shapes of a painting. I'd paint the outlines of the trees. Block in the foreground and sky. I'd quickly figure out the local color. Not every painter works this way, I realize. Some start with a single object and sort of spiral out from there. But over all, I've found that laying in the big shapes first works well. I also try to quickly determine my darkest and lightest areas. I worry about highlights and details later.
By focusing on the big shapes first, you can sketch in a scene more quickly, and you'll be less fussy. Practice and repetition only improve your speed and ability to craft a sort of shorthand study of a scene. What's more, these quick plein air sketches often result in a sketchy, loose look that many artists find appealing. The work conveys a raw honesty that is frequently more pleasing than a finished, studio piece.
This approach to efficient outdoor painting translates well to other areas of our lives. The author Stephen Covey wrote a best selling book titled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In the book he descries an exercise where students are asked to fill a jar with large rocks and pebbles.
Many students pour the pebbles in first, and then unsuccessfully add the big rocks. Only when they place the big rocks in first, and follow up by pouring the pebbles in and around the big rocks, do the students successfully fill the jar. Moral to the story: Tackle the big problems first.
In our lives we often get bogged down with the minutia. We fritter with emails and small tasks. We procrastinate and avoid the big stuff, which only adds to our stress. But when we finally decide to tackle the big tasks first, we move forward more quickly. And the small tasks are a piece of cake afterward.
Learn to focus on the boulders before the pebbles. Whether it's outdoor painting or challenges in your professional life, tackling the big stuff first will expedite the process, lessen your stress and get you where you want to go a lot faster.