Painting outdoors on site has figured large in my work ever since my last years in college at Virginia Tech. Working in situ has its own set of risks and trials that have nothing to do with the aesthetic or technical problems of painting. I'm talking about people: curious, mostly well-meaning, people. Ask any painter who works outdoors and you'll hear stories of encounters with interesting folk.
Here's a little known fact. In every town or city there are lots of people who apparently don't do anything but wander around. A friend once cautioned me, "If you paint outdoors, sooner or later the village idiot will find you."An artist working on the street casts a magic spell that apparently turns adults into children. Probably because painters share certain characteristics in common with clowns and jugglers. We're entertaining. But we outdoor artists also share characteristics with criminals. Before the easel comes out, we've likely loitered too long in one place, and looked a little too hard at things, as if we're casing the joint for a robbery. Maybe that's why Degas said, "A painting takes as much cunning as committing a crime."
Some of my encounters have been pleasant and enjoyable. Other times I've felt a bit threatened. (I often work in some pretty sketchy places.) Very seldom has a chance encounter on the street led to a sale, a commission, or a lasting, meaningful relationship, except once when the president of a paper mill near Lynchburg, VA, stopped and later bought the painting that I was doing of his mill. Mostly it's a vexation to be interrupted while you're deep in thought, struggling with a problem, searching for something you can't seem to find. That difficulty is likely what occasioned Degas' to make his famous remark, "Art is a battle." (That, and the Franco-Prussian war that Degas experienced about the time he made the comment.)
When I'm deeply entrained in the work, fighting my way back to the verbal side of consciousness in order to respond to a question from a passerby is like running underwater. Voices sound like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. Why is it that no one thinks to chat up the guy or gal in a ditch working on the city's water main? But then those folk have serious work to do, unlike painters, who we all know are probably out on holiday enjoying a day off from their real work.
I read somewhere that the use of free-association in psycho-analysis has fallen away because they discovered that it doesn't reveal much. People, it turns out, are pretty predictable in their associations: egg-bird; cat-dog, night-day, etc. Same with the questions that people ask. These are the ones I most often hear when painting, and my answers (in parentheses):
1. What are you painting? (Follow my eyes.)
2. How long does it take you to finish a painting? (I don't know.)
3. Do you sell them or is it just a hobby? (It's not a hobby.)
4. How much do you sell them for? (Probably more than you want to spend.)
5. How long have you been doing this? (As long, or longer than you've been alive.)
6. Did you study art or did you just learn it yourself? (I studied art but I learned it myself.)
7. Why are you painting THAT!? (Do you want the short answer or the long one?)
Over the years I have learned a few things from passersby (in quotation marks):
1. You don't have to actually paint to be an artist. ("My [fill in blank: daughter, son, uncle, aunt, etc.] is an artist. He/she hasn't painted in 25 years but he/she is so creative...") and so forth.
2. Subject matter is all that matters in art. ("Man, them buildings MEAN something to you?" Me: "No, I just like the colors and the light." Angry reply: "Then WHY are you painting them!?")
3. People naturally understand that the chaos and mess of actual construction sites is a necessary stage of a building process but a painting should look like a picture from the first marks. ("My son paints, but he can make it LOOK LIKE a picture." And, "Man, you doin' some of that New York-y shit!")
4. Art teachers are generally useless and incompetent, if not crazy. ("My teacher at the community college told me not to use so much green, but leaves ARE green!")
Not all exchanges are so bad. Usually it's the children who stop to watch who seem to just get what it's all about. I once had an audience of some Mennonite children on their way home from school. They were mesmerized by the likeness of the painting to the buildings and houses I was painting. For them, whose religious upbringing proscribes "graven images," I imagine it was like that Walt Disney animation of a painting flowing, finished to the last detail, in one stroke from a paintbrush wiggling across the canvas from top to bottom.
My favorite meeting was with two young boys who stood behind me quietly watching me work on a cropped composition of a railroad overpass in the downtown of Waynesboro, VA. I overheard one say to the other, "You want to be an artist when you grow up?" His friend replied, "I don't know, don't you have to wear one of those funny hats?" The boy's parting remark to me was priceless: "Mister, next time you paint that bridge you should bring a bigger canvas so you can get the whole thing on there."