Of Flops and Frustrations

Last Saturday we met for the first time during a weekend. Sunny, Tom, Larry and Janice showed up and we found a very clean Middle Harbor Regional Park with just the right amount of people. I had been there the weekend before and had set my sights on the Port of Oakland's operations, and specifically on two blue cranes near the container yard. These were visible from the second story of an observatory at the park, so I placed my gear there. Unfortunately my large-format easel failed to work, and I had to prop the very large canvas I had brought (24 x 48) against a trash container and lower myself. The view changed and somehow the composition did too. But because I had been thinking a lot about notan lately, I decided this rather dull composition was not going to be aided by anything else I could do. By the end of the three hours, my instinct was telling me to paint over it, but another voice said I needed to give it a chance. On Sunday I took another look at it, and felt I could succesfully complete it, so I promised myself I would give it another try on Monday. However, what made me decide not to go through with it was that it was not outside of my comfort zone or helping me try anything new. In my storage, I have hundreds of ok paintings with bad compositions and I did not want another one.

On Monday, I left that one in the garage and brought another canvas (36 x 24") to the same park. I admitted to myself that what I wanted was closer than the comfortable observatory, so I set up shop close to the fence dividing the park from the Port Authority's piers. There was no way I could paint these two white cranes as architecture in a plein air situation, so my general plan was to go for suggestion instead of documentation.

I had brought a piece of wood that I used as a ruler, to divide the space in the new canvas and keep my lines generally straight. The horizon line and vanishing point were easy to identify, but the orthogonals and transversals were much, much harder. Part of the challenge was that the crane's size and complexity was overwhelming. My strategy was then to map the negative spaces first and continue with triangulation. In architecture as in figure drawing, triangulation is merely to establish new fixed points by comparing them with two other fixed points. You start with the obvious ones and those help you to determine the more subtle ones.

At about that point a man came near me and complimented my use of perspective. He even asked me if I was an engineer! Feeling quite self-satisfied and complacent, I continued painting without taking the requisite steps away to look at the canvas. Only during the last half hour did I discover a huge mistake in the size of a building at the top of the nearest crane. Fixing this ate the rest of my time, but I will work on it again when we return and see if I can finish it. And if I do, I will feel the satisfaction of knowing I worked on something new. I'm posting this unfinished painting because I think we learn more from our flops and frustrations than from "successful" pieces. Rebeca


  1. There is something i like about both of these. I haven't totally put my finger on it but I think it is the combination of the clean, very good painting and the abstract quality of the composition. I see what you mean about the first one but I still like it.

  2. I sure learn a lot from y'all. I think the big white Chinese Cranes are very sculptural against the sky. I agree with Karen, I actually like the blue crane (but y'know me - I'd probably get impatient with the container colors and make them fluorescent or something). Could you see the white boat stern screw at the center of the drive in the parking lot from your perch? That might look really neat in the first painting.

    It was really nice meeting Sunny and Larry (again) and running into Thomas too! I posted my work over here: http://nbpleinair.blogspot.com/2009/09/recent-wanderings-janice-l-h.html

  3. Wow - I see these cranes every time I go to San Francisco and I think you totally conveyed their complexity in the unfinished one - those cranes are always working and they actually move around quite a lot so the 'formations' they create are always different. I appreciate the detailed post too - very informative and interesting. Fran