“Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism.” Pierre-Auguste Renoir
I recently learned that prior to the mid-19th century, painters of outdoor subjects – landscapes and oceans, towns and ships and trees – did so mostly in their studios. After having sketched a quick study of their subject on location, to get certain details down, they would return to their workspaces and start the real process of creating their images. I imagine many of them might have preferred to paint outdoors – en plein air – at least when the weather was beautiful, but painting equipment was so bulky and impractical for travel – unwieldy easels and messy, poorly contained paints – that according to historians, most did not.
That is, until the invention of the French Box Easel, or field easel! The genius behind this portable studio is not known, but these game changers were designed from the beginning with telescoping legs and a built-in palette for paints. They were made light enough for hiking into the forest, up a mountain, or across a rocky coast – as far into the world as one might need to go to find just the right point of inspiration.
And in this briefcase-sized field box one could, by about this time but not before, bring along a nice stash of paint tubes. That’s right, prior to 1841, paints were usually carried around in animal bladders and syringes. So, paint tubes were not only an entirely more attractive form of storage, they were also better for preserving paint for reuse and, most crucially, allowing artists to bring along a greater variety of color. It’s thought that this invention alone gave rise to Impressionism, because it motivated more spontaneous and greater variety of color choices! And with much less wasted paint, they could afford to apply it more thickly!
For me, this intriguing bit of art history rings all the fascination bells.Though not a painter per se, I do in the course of my personal Expressive Arts practice frequently create visual images using various media – pastels, pencils, pens, charcoal, clay, textiles, and yes, on occasion, watercolor and acrylic paints that still come in those convenient little tubes. However, I also like to spend as much free time as I can outdoors. And so when I was first developing my art practice, I often felt conflicted between my desire for lots of art-making time and my desire for lots of outdoor time. Fortunately, my mental lightbulb switched on and I decided to pack myself up something even smaller than a field easel – a simple little go-bag with just pencils, a couple of pens, a small box of oil pastels, and a very small pad of mixed media paper, and head out – to anywhere.
My ultimate desire with any art-making though is for it to be multimodal – combining more than one art medium or modality at a time. Often for me this means doing some movement or dance before I make visual art, or “moving” the image once I’ve made it to bring out the depth of my experience. But, movement practices don’t often seem entirely practical in public spaces – the parks and piers and beaches I frequent don’t feel quite right to me for such vulnerable forms of expression. I have found though, that I can do a little meditating just about anywhere. I don’t even have to close my eyes, or pretzel my legs into lotus position. I can just breathe deep and use this technique for grounding myself in the present moment:
- Notice three things I can see around me, at or above eye level
- Notice three things I can hear
- Notice three things I can feel, physically with my body
A few rounds of this and I find I have come into the here and now, and that’s when I’m ready to move to my art supplies and paper. As always, I allow myself to gravitate towards colors that I feel are calling to me, and gestures and shapes that come naturally and without much thought. It’s this low pressure, unplanned approach to making visual imagery that allows my imagination to take the reins, and steer my mind and my mind’s eye to a place that is normally unexplored – a place of rich nourishment and valuable personal feedback.
Expressive Arts practice for me almost always involves writing in response to visual imagery – and that’s another thing that’s easy to do while I’m out in public. Just a few lines scribbled on the back of my image, starting with “I am,” “I feel,” or I need,” brings me yet more information about where I’m at and what my internal wisdom is offering me.
Finally, Expressive Arts on the go doesn’t need to be limited to plein air practice. I’ve taken my go-bag with me to museums, cafes, hotel rooms. I’ve even collaborated on some imagery with my niece, in my little tiny notebook, in the backseat of a car on the way to a family funeral. Trust me, it made that journey not only more memorable but comforting and enjoyable.
Legendary Expressive Arts co founder and therapist Shaun McNiff has talked about how, early in his career, he was so inundated with required business and staff meetings, that he began doodling and sketching as they were droning on. He found he was actually able to better hear into what coworkers were really saying, and his images gave him more insight into the issues and ideas being discussed.
For me, the insight with this topic is that – in the same way I know now that creative expression is meant for everyone, that every person in the world has unique creative ability – I have learned too that creative expression is meant for everywhere. Our creative selves are meant to be taken out into the world with us and made a larger and more real part of our daily lives. We don’t need to wait for studio time or spare time, because we can find ways, means and the time to make art here, there and – anywhere.
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Laura Hensley, Counselor, LMHC. Through Expressive Arts therapy and personal practice, I find and make meaning, develop my own personal mythology, and gain confidence and connection to myself and others. I offer this same opportunity to Integrative Counsel clients by way of multimodal creative exploration of your intentions, goals, and heartfelt desires!