Recently I finished a painting in some backwaters of the Olentangy River in Delaware Ohio, and after posting it on my website someone commented on the “ephemeral” quality of my work. I suppose the waters that I have stood in for thousands of hours over my lifetime have made me a perpetual student of nature's fickle changes. Seeing the unseen for lack of better words, is simply accepting what isn’t there and following your instincts and perceptions to fill in the blanks. In landscape painting, things are changing rapidly, like water reflections, shadows, values, color, atmosphere, and even wind. All these factors, when considered in a painting, add to its ephemeral quality. If all these factors are relevant elements, you are building a cohesive story about the moment. It’s very strategic and is kind of like moving pieces on a chessboard. The feelings we get from all these environmental elements are very momentary but it really does not mean you have to work quickly. I believe this is a mistake. You use everything you know about past moments you have had through observation to capture the mood. Plein air painting does require you to move rapidly but if you can visualize what happened 15 minutes ago or a day ago with a stream of light for example you can fill in the “unseen” whether it is in the studio or outside. So through careful observation the ephemeral can be captured, you may not see it, but you can feel it and imagine it from prior experience. Before cameras, outdoor painters had to use these well-exercised creative visualizations in every instance.
Today the camera becomes a crutch that gives you too much information that kills the ephemeral in my opinion. This is why I do not rely on photography I do however use it for creating notans and preliminary compositional sketches before going to paint. Not using photography exercises your brain and trains you to fill in what cannot be seen. Relying on your own perceptions and observation adds to the ephemeral quality of the painting and it really becomes your own unique emotional fingerprint.