When I first began painting outdoors I remember walking for hours trying to find something that inspired me. Now I see beauty everywhere. Being inspired is like any other skill and repeated practice makes it easier. If you spend thousands of hours trying to find subjects which move you emotionally, eventually you get really good at it. Having a personal vision of what you want to paint also helps a great deal, but the best artists are always pushing themselves to tackle new subjects and this is where being very sensitive comes into play. I believe this sensitivity can be trained to the point where an artist can feel inspiration almost on demand.
For years I have traveled to exotic locations in the winters to paint outdoors. Going somewhere where the colors, light, and shapes are completely different from what you’re used to makes it very easy to be inspired right away, but one sees so much more after a month in a place. Six weeks, I think, is the ideal time for a painting trip as you have the last two very productive weeks where you really have a feel for the subjects.
Ironically, my best trips are the ones where I have arrived and thought ‘My God, did I come all this way for this?’ because I couldn’t see anything worth painting. Having to squeeze paintings out of an visually uninspiring area is often more conducive to beautiful art than going to somewhere like Rajasthan where you see extraordinary things everywhere. I become almost frozen in a place where everywhere you look at is picturesque from the fear that at the end of the trip I’ll have missed the stunningly perfect view I should have painted.
Where I live, Chianti, is actually surprisingly unpicturesque for all its fame. Olive trees and vineyards make for very poor compositional elements when seen from a distance and all the great landscape painters have avoided the area, preferring the landscape of the Senese to the south, the Mugello to the north, or Maremma to the west. Even the local plein air school, the Macchiaoli, produced surprisingly few paintings in Chianti, and the paintings they did do tended to be very small with simple, close-up subjects. For me, living in a pictorially uninspiring place is a bit like the marathon runners who practice at high altitudes to run faster at sea level: when I then travel to somewhere with great obvious compositions everywhere I am all the more inspired. When I want to paint larger, more classical compositions with a strong foreground, middle-ground, and background in one frame, I still spend an insane amount of time driving/walking/ bicycling around looking for views. However, after 17 years of forcing myself to paint here I have become very good at seeing beauty just by stepping outside and have recently begun to experiment with larger canvases of ‘small’ subjects.
This is the real test of a great painter. When I think of the most memorable landscape paintings I’ve seen in museums, they are often of simple, unremarkable scenes which likely passed unobserved by all but the artist. I believe it is the thousands of hours spent searching for inspiration which instill in landscape painters the ability to find great beauty in such humble subjects.