Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Here’s a scene that I really wanted to paint in Bantry, Ireland last week. The green and red building stands at the juncture of two sloping roads in town.

But it was impossible to paint the scene on location for a simple reason: The only place to set my stool was a busy sidewalk that was only two feet wide.

Because the road was so narrow, and because it was the main thoroughfare for the coastal route out of Bantry, huge trucks were forced ride up onto the sidewalks to allow other vehicles to pass.

There was a real risk of being clipped by a rear-view mirror, and I didn’t want to force pedestrians to step into the street. So I had to give it up and look for another motif.

I call such an impediment a “gamestopper.” It’s something that shuts down a plein-air effort, and it has nothing to do with issues of technique or composition.

I’ll list some other examples, and I’m sure you’ll have more in the comments. Every one of these has happened to me:

1. Menaced by bull in the middle of a field.
2. Heavy downpour starts (fatal to watercolor) and wind blows rain under umbrella (eventually shuts down oil painting).
3. Forgot the chair, and no place to sit down.
4. High wind makes easel impossible to set up.
5. Subject (person, vehicle, animal) departs.
6. Drunk guy in bar keeps bumping hard into sketching arm.
7. Tide comes in, eliminating setup area.
8. Donkey puts head in lap.
9. Sketching from drawbridge; drawbridge lifts.
10. Goats keeps nibbling sketchbook.
11. Kicked out by guard/ harbormaster/ cop/ farmer/ railyard bull—and once ejected by a nun!
12. Easel blown over washed down waterfall.
13. Scheduled steam train (my ride home) must depart.
14. Folding chair collapses in museum.
15. Biting insects become too unbearable.
16. Unseen people on overlook above keep spitting on me.
17. Forgot key supplies (brushes, solvent, paints, or panel).
18. Fog comes in and covers view.
19. Shop opens or doorway becomes active.
20. Sub-freezing temperatures freeze watercolor.
21. Automatic sprinklers turned on in garden.
22. Car or truck parks in front, obstructing view.
23. Lights turned on, killing mood; or turned off, obscuring sketchbook.
24. Tour bus unloads gaggle of annoying tourists who hover around snapping pictures and asking inane questions.
25. Portrait subject approached, waving a finger, superstitious about being drawn.


The fearless threader said...

I once was sketching a bowling green in Bakewell when a woman approached me and snatched the sketchbook out of my hand, "to have a proper look". I was a bit miffed with that and rather lost the urge to carry on drawing.

Super Villain said...

haha, best post yet hilarious!

irinapictures said...

I did not realize my hobby is so dangerous and unpredictable... :-))
And even people attacking (The fearless threader example :-))
Smog in the city wiped away my dreams to sketch today.

LandPainter said...

What a wonderful post!! I thought this kind of thing only happened to me, especially the truck parking in front of the subject, LOL!

The sprinkler one happen to me too, and it scared me so bad I just about did a flip out of my seat. Then, of course, I calmly looked around to see if anyone was watching.

I can't believe people were actually spitting on you, now that's pretty rude.

And your chair collapsed in the museum?! Ouch!

Well, here's to better painting in the future... and the exciting adventure plein air can be. :)

Cristy said...

Love these!
Experienced many of them...
would have to add: Little kids keep putting fingers into paint.
My favorite is the donkey - aren't they something? It takes a pretty hard-hearted painter to shoo away a tenderly affectionate donkey.

James Gurney said...

I should have explained that the spitting was unintentional. The tourists in Death Valley didn't know Jeanette and I were sitting in the only patch of shade down below the overlook. When we looked up, they said, "Goldarn, there's a couple artists down there."

ZanBarrage said...

The one I hate the most are the tourists. If I get asked one more time if I am a painter I will flip. No. I am an MI5 agent disguised as a painter! Its called surveillance people!

swade said...

I can't explain it buy my biggest gamestopper is the age-old question, "Ooh, what's that a drawing of?" after a stranger looks at your sketchbook. I know it's meant as a polite conversation starter but it just takes the wind out of my sails. Especially if you happen to be sitting under a gigantic bridge, drawing the gigantic bridge and somebody asks, "What is that?"

Usually I smile politely and say, "Ducks" or "The sunset" or some other imagery that is not at all what I'm drawing.

The fearless threader said...

I like Swade's comment. People do ask silly questions.

Unknown said...

i would love to have goats nibble at my sketchbook!

Rich Adams said...

I have to add, my showstopper is typically when someone walks up and asks with all sincerity, "Are you drawing that?" It's hard to grasp the unknown, but this is the one situation that makes me question the meaning of it all...

Tom Hart said...

James, are you considering painting this from the photo reference?

Tom Hart said...

James, are you considering painting this from the photo reference?

James Gurney said...

Tom, no, I would lose interest in the subject if I had to work from the photo. To tell you the truth, I kind of enjoy the low-level chaos that I face outdoors or in a busy pub, as long as it doesn't ratchet up to Gamestopper level.

John Stone said...

I haven't really been field painting (hoping to try this weekend) but I sketch on the DC Metro on my commute to and from work just about everyday.

The most "gamestoppers" I get is if I have to hang on to the rail. (unless i learn to draw and hold my sketchbook with one hand :op) or if the sketch subject doesn't like being sketched and gives me dirty DC looks I usually oblige and choose a different subject. Most of the time people are sleeping though and make for some good subjects for sketching.

Even though there is not a lot variety in the poses there're are so many different kind people to choose from its awesome.

T Arthur Smith said...

I guess the worst thing happening to me had to do with going to Italy as part of a school group. They'd take us to the most stupendous places, then shuffle us back up the road or in the bus, just a couple minutes into my sketching, and I didn't have a camera back then. The worst was going to Assisi, the church is up on a cliff, and a restaurant nearby sits right on the cliff itself. The view was incredible, all of Italy, with an incredible sun and rays of light filtering down. And the Prof didn't want to eat there because it was too expensive (as in a euro or two more per plate than the other place). She refused my offer to pay for everyone, and wouldn't let me go on my own... She said I could come back some other day (you'd think an art history prof would understand the difficulty in getting the same weather/light). I've never been back. Maybe in another ten years.....
The lesson I learned is, when traveling/painting through Europe, do it alone.

António Araújo said...

Have to add this one, fortunately only happened once:

26. While drawing pretty girl, boyfriend comes around, doesn't want her portrait done; she wants her portrait done; domestic dispute ensues.

(artist departs, rolling eyes)

Kate Higgins said...

My personal favorite game stoppers are: falling a sleep in the sun and losing my great light, having a horse decide my hair hair is straw and trying to eat it, having the boulder that I was sitting on suddenly decide to slide downhill (nothing was damaged but my pride), dropping my portable watercolor box overboard and watching it sink and last, but not least, remembering everything for a nice day of painting outside BUT forgetting the paper.

Lanz said...

"8. Donkey puts head in lap."

For some reason I find this one absolutely hilarious.

Mark Vander Vinne said...
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Mark Vander Vinne said...

The wind shattered my glass palette on a brick road, after I just got the paints put out on it. Another time it broke my whole easel.

Bugs. Especially at dusk when you're trying to capture that perfect sunset and have to stop to smack your neck or ankles every 5 seconds.

The bump on a train right when you're defining that important line.

Agree that the donkey is just plain funny.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

I was about to do a workshop demo of a quaint little Victorian house when a septic pumper truck pulled up and parked directly in front of my subject. I continued...and so did the pumper. No sooner than I finished my demo, than the pumper truck finished its work, too. Gamestopper? Nah.

Shane White said...

You should illustrate these, kind of like what Rockwell would do.

Yeah, I'd say I had similar experiences.

I'd add:

1)Losing interest in subject.

2)Subject looked better before you started painting.

3)Forgot brushes

4)The full moon moved too far to the right changing what little light it gave off.

5)In Guatemala too many people started crowding me I couldn't see subject anymore.

6)Became nauseous from the moving van/too much sun/not enough water.

7)Needed a restroom but I was not in a private enough location or a public enough location.

8)Tour groups would not stop asking what I was painting and insisted on jumping onto the floating dock to find out.

9)A hay baler started cutting the field I was in.

10)The threat of being attacked/mugged by homeless/transient types


Marek Tarnawski said...

Great post.
I would add something from my personal experience -

Sub-freezing temperatures freeze drawing hand.
Drawing next to a road where big loud trucks are passing by.

Billy Guffey said...
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Billy Guffey said...

My 8 year old daughter had to go to the bathroom after I got everything set up, standing in about 6 inches of water in the middle of a creek.

Mary Byrom said...

A pickup truck drove up and parked in front of the tree I was painting. A guy got out of the truck, pulled a chain saw out of the back of it and proceeded to cut down the tree. I couldn't believe it was really happening- did someone pay him to do that? ... I couldn't breathe I was laughing so hard.

T Arthur Smith said...

Once in Boston, I was interrupted at night by a large, mentally-handicapped man, who kept shaking my hand, and then started asking if I was his friend. I said, yeah, and next thing I know, he's asking, "Are you my girlfriend? Are you my girlfriend?" So I got the hell out.

One night I decided to draw a landscape for a girl I liked, and didn't stop even though I was eaten alive by mosquitos. Only my hands were exposed (planning) but by the end I counted over 40 bites on each hand. In the end... the girl lost it, and then started dating some bass guitarist...

Cavematty said...

My girlfriend, her best friend and I made a brief visit to Japan last year and, all being creatives, managed a few plein air sessions.

One such location was Miyajima where there is a famous shrine gate whose foundations are underwater at high tide. We were there approaching sunset, with high tide reflecting the colours of the darkening sky and the brightly artificially illuminated Torii. Perfect. The sightseers out snapping pics of the iconic landmark started taking just as many photos of us, until another local attraction started to interfere.

Tame deer came up and one took a specific liking to my girlfriends moleskine sketchbook, trying to eat it right out from under her brush. She got decidedly irate when she could not startle the tame animal, though the tourists around us were more easily disturbed. Together we managed to herd the beast away, though the light was failing fast and the moment had passed.

In my opinion the memory is better with the deers hijinks, but my girlfriend surely feels differently.

Noemí González said...

A boy asked me a piece of my Arches watercolor paper to become a joint. Just a bit... please...

A man asked me to be engaged. He didn't care I was married. He was not jealous.

Very hilarious post!


Fi - WhereFishSing.com said...

Hilarious. Reminds me why I really have no patience with painting outside and quite a lot of admiration for those who do.

Dit said...

Hilarious post and I find the donkey incident charming too.
I was once attacked by geese. And once my subject thought drawing him was my way of trying to ask him out. I just thought he had an interestingly shaped head but how do you tell him that? I certainly prefer sketching unaware people.

Billy Guffey said...

Got knocked to the wet ground by a juiced up electric fence. Big bulls in the lot so it was cranked.

Looked at the tree in the corner of the field and saw the top strand of barbed wire nailed in, so I thought it was safe. Little did I know the middle strand was hot. As I lifted the top strand and was ducking under, I pressed down on the middle strand with my left hand. POW! Ended up in the mud. Luckily not laying on the fence.

Still painted after that though. ;)

Daroo said...

Early one morning, I set up my Open Box M and unrolled my brush holder on a nearby log, anticipating the golden light that would give form to the wooded path that stretched out in front of me.

With the sun's light came its heat and what I assumed to be biting flies. I absentmindedly swatted them, all attention on my painting. Then WHAM! One bit me on my back! Through my shirt! It really hurt!

I glanced over my shoulder, toward the log and GHEEAHGGGGG!! -- a swarm of yellow jackets (who were none too happy about having my brush holder spread out over their nest)! In one panicked movement, I grabbed my painting rig in one hand and made a grab for my brush holder as I bolted away.

If you've ever seen somebody pull the table cloth cleanly out from under a fully set table -- leaving the dishes, silverware and glasses in place, then you can picture what happened to my brushes -- most of them stayed perfectly in place in the middle of the log as I tugged away the brush holder. Looking back over my shoulder as I sprinted down the path, I could see the brushes' ferrules, sparkling in the sun as angry yellow jackets swirled around them.

Lydia Burris said...

I as well love the donkey comment. - in fact the whole list was amusing to read

People asking inane questions is a big one for me. especially the dual comment 'are you an artist? I can't even draw a stick figure'.
I know they mean well...

I'm strangely inspired to paint out more.

Daniel said...

I just had number 9 happy to me last week! Great list and so true. The perils of working on location.

Having said that there's nothing quite like working that way. I love it.

Unknown said...

I would like to see each of these illustrated -- in your spare time of course! :)

Unknown said...

Perfect time to tell my story. I was sketching some hyenas at a zoo and the border was pretty small. I sketched them for a long while and thought it would be cool, (warning this is stupid) to reach in and have the hyena leave its mark on my sketchbook... Kinda like when Fred Flintstone clocks in at his work. Well it didnt go that nice....bye bye sketchbook. I think I had too much sun that day.....

Anonymous said...

Yes yes, well said. I comend your bravery in the name of art. Drawing out of doors is full of unpredictable dangers.

Gene Snyder said...

Thanks for the post and list Jim!! Hope your trip was fun.

I hiked about 3 miles into a national park, got all set up, placed the panel on the easel, set up the stool, opened the paintbox and realized I didn't have Titanium White or any other white for that matter!! I still ended up completing the oil painting. Not having white made me think about how much I always used it. This forced me to rethink how I painted. The painting is actually one of my favorite ones that I've done.

Thanks Jim.

HKP said...

Seems people have been having problems like this for a long time: Near the beginning of Goethe's travelogue Italian Journey, he sits down to sketch the ruins of an old fort, and the local villagers assume he must be a spy and haul him off to the police!

Timothy Parks said...

Great post. I have had 10 out of your 25 "incidents" happen to me too while trying to paint outdoors. My favorite and funniest incident was when I was trying to paint a street scene at the corner of 29th and 3rd in NYC, when a woman pulled up and parked her car at the parking meter right in front of me. She jumps out of her car, (she is in a real big rush) runs over to me, and forces a handful of quarters into my hand while yelling, "You'll be here for a while. Feed my meter while I'm gone"! And runs away. Well, I know that I didn't paint the rest of that morning, but I don't remember if it was because I was laughing too hard, or because I was too busy feeding quarters into the parking meter all day.

Jose said...

I've looked over your paint box and can't find what you're missing... but more than that I must say it's comforting to know that even an artist of your caliber still runs to into these kinds of problems.

Anonymous said...

The thing I hate most is being asked if I'm a student, or if I go to the local Art & Design school. It's infuriating.

Anonymous said...
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René PleinAir said...

Mad rooster will do the trick! ;-)
I just discovered that one!

Kat Moody said...

At least you got a fabulous photo to remind you of what could have been!

Kath said...

Well I got spit on, on purpose. Once I was sketching below a small stone bridge on a hiking trail and two young guys came along and spit on me and my paper. I still have the drawing, which is warped in the spot where the spit landed.

Kath said...

Well I got spit on, on purpose. Once I was sketching below a small stone bridge on a hiking trail and two young guys came along and spit on me and my paper. I still have the drawing, which is warped in the spot where the spit landed.

Nancie Marie said...

Great list. Nice to know I'm not alone in this.

I was sketching the neighbors dog, when she (dog) came up and sunk her teeth into my sketchbook. Actually, it added a nice touch to the drawing - signed by the sitter (a setter) and the artist.

A sad things happen, too. Ignored little children have come up to me at the park while painting and begged me to watch them throw a ball, etc.

Also have had a man lay down and go to sleep by me, with a whole big park to do that in.

James Gurney said...

Nancie and Kath, wow, those are weird and disturbing experiences. It's so hard to concentrate on our paintings anyway without those things happening.