Artist Becomes Spy

Peter Paul Rubens self portrait
Self Portrait by Peter Paul Rubens

A successful artist living a second life as a spy during the 17th century may sound like the hottest historical novel, but it is the actual life of Peter Paul Rubens.

During the 17th century the Netherlands had been split into two warring factions along religious lines, protestants in the north, and catholics in the south. The southern area called Flanders was controlled by the Spanish, and the northern area of Holland was seeking acknowledgment of independence.

Antwerp, Rubens’s hometown, was the largest city in Flanders and had been under a blockade by Hollander ships for years reducing it to a poverty stricken near ghost town. Rubens had returned at the death of his mother after spending years in the service of the Duke of Mantua in Italy.

Rubens loved Flanders but he was greatly disturbed at the way war had ruined his beloved city that had once been the economic capital of northern Europe. Flanders was being governed by the Infanta Isabella, aunt to Phillip the 4th king of Spain, and her husband. As the greatest living artist of the time, Rubens was in great demand with royalty and aristocrats from all over Europe, and Isabella desired that he become her court painter.

Infanta Isabella by Peter Paul Rubens
Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia by Peter Paul Rubens

Rubens had never enjoyed court life, and worked out a deal with the Infanta and her husband that he could remain at his independent studio as long as he painted a portrait for each of them, and also passed on any information he might overhear, for which he would receive a yearly salary. In other words, he was now a spy for Spain.

Dukes, ambassadors, kings, and queens all wanted a painting by Rubens so whether they came to his studio, or he traveled to them, Rubens had the perfect excuse to observe and hear things from all the parties involved in the war, namely England, France, Spain, and Holland.

Rubens greatest political coups was in negotiations with Charles I the King of England, who had strangely commissioned the self portrait of Rubens (seen at the top) years earlier through his agent the Duke of Buckingham. By signing a truce with England, Rubens hoped that Holland would be pressured into negotiations for peace with Spain since Holland would now have the threat of England to it’s north, as well as Spain to the south.

Unfortunately, peace didn’t happen until eight years after Rubens’s death when Spain finally recognized Holland’s independence.

Distinguish Your Art

Albion Plein Air
Plein air painting in Albion Basin

Whoa! Looks like I missed last week’s post. I’ll blame it on my cousin’s wedding on the weekend and leave it at that. Now back to our regular program.

I was with a group painting in the Albion Basin last Wednesday while the sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds. The photo above shows the study I was working on at about the halfway point.

I was pretty satisfied with the direction it was taking as the values were working and the general colors weren’t too far off, but I’ve been reading several books on painting recently and I’ve been playing around with how to finish a painting. This has me thinking about how one artist distinguishes his art from another’s.

I hate to bring up a time honored and time reviled (at least by me) phrase but I think it’s something that needs to be gotten out of the way. Just be yourself is advice I feel that is often used as a catch all statement when the person giving the advice actually doesn’t have any real answers. So, I’m going to break it down for you, and show you how it relates to distinguishing your art.

Ask yourself this, does an onion know it’s an onion?

The obvious answer is no, but what if the onion became self aware. Would the onion knowing it was an onion make it anymore oniony (trademark pending)? I don’t believe it would, but I think if an onion was self aware it could possibly make the onion less of an onion. So, if an onion tried to be itself, it might end up questioning what an onion was and if it was good enough to be an onion, and maybe it didn’t want to be an onion and instead thought that being a carrot would be better.

Just like the self aware onion, by trying to be yourself you might end up not being yourself.

The only way to be yourself is to stop trying to be yourself.

So, to distinguish your art, you have to stop trying to distinguish your art.

But, this is not an excuse to not improve your art.

You are not like the unchanging pyramids of Egypt. Part of who you are is the ability to improve, and to become better and greater than you are right now. Despite the League of Pigeonholers’s (also pending trademark) mandate to the contrary, you are an extremely complex and ever changing being and that is part of what makes you, you.

So, study other artists, do a few copies, draw more often, train your eye, and forget about being yourself. Yourself will always be there, and one day someone will say “I can always spot one of your artworks from across the room.”

Tricks for Finding Locations to Paint Outside

Provo canyon
Provo Canyon

Painting outside, or plein air, can be a real rush, but once you’ve been to all of the places you are familiar with it’s easy to find yourself without an idea of where to go next. This can be really tough if you are primarily a landscape painter as your livelihood can dry up with the lack of new subject matter, and to paraphrase Edgar Payne, despite the wonders or our brain and inventiveness of our intellect, nature will always out imagine us all.

The solution would seem easy to just go somewhere you haven’t been before, but you can often find yourself driving for hours and not find anything worth stopping for. Or, worse you find yourself in the perpetual search for something better, and before you realize it the entire day is gone.

I’ve often had days like these, or even days where I stayed in the studio because of the fear of wasting the day and never finding anything to paint.

So, is there a solution?

I haven’t found the perfect one yet, but I have found certain tricks that can make scouting the unknown less of a gamble.

The easiest one is to simply ask friends, and neighbors if they’ve seen anything cool, or looked like a painting as they’ve traveled. Maybe there is an awesome view along their daily commute that is perfect in the morning or afternoon light? Or on their family vacation maybe they spotted someplace off the side of the road that they promised they’d stop and see the next time through?

Make friends with someone who mountain bikes, hunts, or rides ATV’s. All of these activities lead people into places that are beautiful and yet never appear in any tourist guide.

Sign up for a plein air workshop. The artist giving the workshop is bound to have different experiences than you, and will often take you to places you haven’t been.

Currently one of my favorite tricks is the Panoramio website. With Panoramio you see a satellite view of the earth, and anyone who snaps a photo can upload it to the site with GPS coordinates. All you have to do is type in a place name or address and you can actually see the lay of the land before leaving your home.

Another way is to let a fellow painter drive. Not only is it a lot more fun to paint outside when you have company, they can introduce you to new areas.

And my last trick is not a way to find new places, but a way to remember them. Take your camera everywhere you go. When you see something that catches your eye, especially if you don’t have time to paint it right then, stop and take a picture of it so that you can have a file of locations for the next time you have a free day to go paint.