It was cold!!!!

The wind would come in gusts, attempting to toss my easel down the crest while it froze my fingers. It hovered between 32 and 38 degrees. And, because I left Muncie with temperatures in the 60’s I neglected to bring gloves.

I went to complete a painting outdoors in Virginia, and this was my third and final day to do it.

In hindsight, it’s probably not the best idea to head to the Blue Ridge Mountains Parkway in April, but I had never been there and the weather channel had predicted 50’s – 60’s with partly cloudy skies.

Yeah, I know that looking at the weather report is like throwing darts blindfolded and twirled around a couple times. Unfortunately, my excitement for the opportunity to paint in Virginia overpowered my senses and I failed to plan for lousy weather.

Let’s jump back to the beginning…

Day 0 – Getting Ready

Google Earth was my first resource to prepare for the trip. It helped to narrow it down to what looked like great painting material. Trouble is, it’s tough to get a strong feeling for an area by just looking at satellite photos.

That’s the same dilemma we painters have trying to paint from photos.

Part of the magic of plein air painting is the engagement of all the senses. It’s not about seeing trees and clouds and mountains all arranged in a perfect composition. It’s how we feel about what we’re seeing that causes us to get excited to paint it. That feeling is different for each of us and it’s what encourages 10 artists to take the same scene and create 10 wildly different paintings.

Day 1 – Arriving in Virginia

Getting a feel for the area is why I spent much of the first day driving around back roads hoping the rain would let up for more than 10-minute stretches.

It rained heavily and left fog draping over the landscape throughout much of the day.

During brief periods of calm I could see the farms and fields tucked away from well-traveled highways – some of the most idyllic post-card perfect landscapes I’ve seen anywhere.

My car and camera journeyed on through one tranquil setting after another, paying little attention to where I might be. Phone service was more off than on, and my GPS wasn’t performing much better.

By late evening, realizing I had no idea how to get back to the highway, I decided I better find my way out of the maze of hills to a town with a hotel where I could plan and map out day 2 (and pray for sunshine).

Day 2 – Beauty Everywhere… with Rain

Amazing old farmhouses were everywhere, but shoulders where I could pull over to paint were hard to find.

The rain would hit hard every few minutes – giving me just enough time to capture some breathtaking scenes with video.

You might be wondering why I passed up painting all these amazing scenes.

I’m not usually opposed to painting in the rain, but my video cameras are and this trip was designed to capture my plein air painting process for the East Coast Plein Air Experience course.

So, I kept a mental map of where I’d been and figured if there was a definite change in the weather I’d be able to find any previous spot that felt most intriguing pretty quickly.

If my schedule allowed it, I could have spent weeks painting in Virginia. It was truly a Plein Air painters dream.

Aren’t these scenes incredible?

Breathtaking waterfalls that emptied into massive rivers

This is only a third of the river’s awesome width.

I crossed a bridge to a small island in the middle of the river, the roar of the water was both invigorating and terrifying.

An hour’s drive from the river’s majesty showed us that all that powerful water came from mountains and hills that spread themselves like reclining figures into the valley below.

By late afternoon of day two there was finally a break in the weather just as I discovered an old cemetery at the top of a hill. It was overlooking a beautiful patchwork of colored fields and farmsteads.

It was tough to tell how long it would last, but I was determined to capture at least a quick study.

So, I moved fast and hurriedly set up my easel and cameras and prepared to paint.

That is until a friendly older fellow sauntered up to see what I was doing in his family’s burial grounds.

Once I explained that I wanted to paint his beautiful farm, he was more than happy to let me stay. He was also glad to tell me about his family history, as well as his own past.

Turns out he had worked for the local power company for decades and described winters where 10 to 20-foot drifts of snow would pile up on the power poles and how he would trudge through blizzards to restore power to cold homes.

I love learning about the history of the places I paint, especially from those who have lived there for 70 or 80 years.

The bummer was that, even though I continued to get my paints laid out while he talked, heavy clouds blew back in and slanting rain brought an abrupt end to our conversation and my painting.

After that, night fell and I headed for the hotel.

Day 3 – Finding the Perfect Spot

My prayers were answered – mostly. The rain became sporadic instead of constant.

The temperature also dropped 20 degrees… That didn’t matter though – I wasn’t going home without a painting and video show what it’s like to paint outdoors in Virginia.

After witnessing so many magnificent old barns, I was convinced that would be my subject.

Asking around at local stores and my hotel, I was told repeatedly that I needed to drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I hit the road at about 6 a.m. and took a meandering route through back-road farms in the general direction of the Parkway. If I happened to see a barn I couldn’t resist, I would stop and paint and hope to see the Parkway later that afternoon.

Funny thing was, even though old barns were everywhere the previous two days, all I could find along these roads were new metal-sided behemoths.

So, the Parkway it would be!

I saw plenty of paint worthy sights:

Problem was, on the west side of the mountains the wind was blowing at about 60 miles an hour and the clips from my palette camera would have made everyone sea-sick (and nobody wants to get sea-sick while painting mountains).

After about 70 miles of searching I happened on a fork in the road – and I, I took the road less – sorry, got on a tangent there. That fork wound around to the east side of the mountains and suddenly the howling of the wind ceased.

As I pulled into a scenic viewing spot I knew I had found it (only took 3 days)!

Dramatic shifting light as the clouds floated swiftly away, quilted fields, flowing banks of trees wandering through rolling hills, and everything set against the magnificent mountains behind.

What was I thinking!

There was way too much majesty to capture in a small plein air study.

Nope, after this much searching I would not be deterred. Besides, the intense cold insured my fingers had two hours tops before they would no longer hold a brush.

With an occasional gust of wind and threatening bursts of rain in the distance I began to paint…

In next week’s blog we’ll jump into the actual painting, and break down how I condensed all that exquisite drama into a 9×12 study.

Virginia is a dazzlingly beautiful place. Where have you painted that offered plein air treasures like these?

Side Note: The full size versions of these images will be added to the Reference Image Library (available to 6 Week Course and Monthly Members in the Student Portal).

Another Side Note: If you want to learn more about the East Coast Plein Air Adventure you can here It includes this painting and two others from Indiana and New York.