We’re working hard on getting the Master Oil Painting Plein Air training videos ready, and a couple months ago I braved the clinging cold weather in Virginia to paint a mosaic Blue Ridge overlook for the course. Even in the moments before Spring fully blossoms, Virginia is amazingly beautiful!
For me, trips are so much more memorable when there’s someone to share the memories with. On that Virginia trip I had to shiver and explore all on my own – ok, so going out painting is always an incredible experience, whether I’m by myself or not – I’m just whining because I’m used to one of the kids or Kristie keeping me company over the years on extended trips. Fortunately, last week, Kristie took pity on me and finagled her schedule so she could join me on a quick plein air trip to Upstate New York.
While driving I like to listen to books on tape and study the landscape. If I stopped to admire or photograph every seemingly glorious view, Summer would transition to Fall before I reached my destination. With digital photos and video, that doesn’t need to slow us down anymore. On one of Eric Rhoads’ Plein Air Podcast Interviews, Quang Ho mentioned taking photos while driving because he ends up with blurred shots that capture the essence of what catches his eye at 70 mph. I have been doing the same thing for
years (don’t worry, I’m either in the passenger seat, or I take the shot with a video camera without looking – I just push the record button and hope I get something interesting).
This trip was no exception. We caught beautiful fleeting glimpses of what I hoped to find when we arrived farther north in New York. Kristie also filmed several short clips for me which I later took still shots from. It almost saves me the trouble of squinting – almost. That bit of motion blur actually helps soften some of the peripheral distracting details.
We were told by quite a few people to make sure we saw Niagara Falls, so we made that our first stop. I was enthralled with the Niagara River leading to the falls. It was incredibly powerful as it rushed to the precipice.
The long green moss that somehow manages to cling to the river rocks creates dynamic swirling colors as the water churns and splashes around them. I could have watched it for hours, but Kristie was eager to get to the falls we came to see.
Seems like Canada got the better view. We were wishing we could hop over the border and glimpse it from there, but we had the little issue of letting our passports expire a decade ago. Even so, it was an impressive sight and made me stand in awe of God’s creations.
I would have loved to trek back to the car for my painting gear and capture that magnificent sight right then, but Kristie wasn’t too keen on the idea of helping me carry all my video equipment and easel setup over that ½ mile walk. Plus, with all the tourists milling about, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a whole lot of painting done, so I decided to settle with some photos.
We stayed that night in the area and ventured out early the next morning to find the perfect painting spot.
Our search started at a historic site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s called the Sacred Grove, near Palmyra. I have wanted to visit and paint that grove since I joined the church in 1984 – so this was an especially exciting walk for me.
I’ve always felt that no matter their beliefs, artists should seek places, people, or experiences that inspire them. That magical feeling can carry us through the coldest tundra, compel us to stand dripping in pouring rain or fill us with enough courage to face the mightiest of mosquitoes. Some things help us rise above ourselves, to see the world in its true magnificence.
After a good amount of searching we finally found the area that I wanted to paint, but decided to come back early the next morning when the sun would be slanting through the trees at a better angle.
Our little rental car drove through village after village as we explored the area. I heard Art Wolfe talk about his major photo trips – he spends months using Google Earth to plan out successful destinations. I tend to be too spontaneous – part of the reason I love plein air painting. Now that I’m filming my painting excursions, and looking for more specific sights that will work well for teaching, it might be wise to try out that Google Earth trick.
Around 1:30 pm we happened upon an awesome place to grab a bite to eat – the Everyday Cafe. We asked the friendly wait staff for recommendations of local places to paint and took their directions, and our left-overs, to Chimney Bluffs State Park.
After arriving, we climbed a very steep trail that made me wonder if my morning workouts were doing their job. It was probably only a ¼ mile or so – but it was so steep that I could reach forward and just about touch the ground. Kristie and I decided quite early on that the thought of packing my gear to the top didn’t release endorphins in either of us, but that didn’t stop us from huffing and puffing our way up the path just to see the view. The mini workout was well worth it because the water etched cliffs were an incredibly dramatic scene even if they weren’t the classic Upstate New York view I was looking for.
I finally found what appeared to be the perfect spot to paint, but there was nowhere nearby to park so I could set up all my equipment. The view was of an inlet with reeds, water lilies, nesting swans, atmospheric mountains in the background – it held a remarkable diversity of textures, shapes and colors. I’m not a fan of painting only with photos for a reference, but I don’t think I can pass this one up.
The small villages surrounding the banks of Ontario had taken quite a beating. Before we arrived they received more rain than was normal and it wreaked havoc on the lakeside homes and docks. Sandbags were everywhere and many private piers were submerged. This made the already narrow roads hard to park along, and even taking pictures became difficult. The scene I was drooling over was on the side of a road that led to a peninsula town, and it was accessible only by virtue of sandbags that were holding back water.
Have you ever set off early in the morning to paint, spilling over with confidence that you’ll have no trouble finding a fantastic painting spot, and suddenly the second hand on the clock gets louder and louder as the sun gets closer and closer to setting. I feel my pulse quicken a bit as I wonder if I’ll end my day without touching brush to panel. The day certainly wouldn’t be a waste of course, considering all the beautiful scenes I snapped with my camera, but I’ve never taken a picture that captures an area quite as well as painting.
It doesn’t make things any easier for an artist when up and down every road within a 50 mile radius I see signs that declare NO PARKING ANYTIME. I’m not sure if this is a New York norm – or just some conspiracy against outdoor painting. Do any of you know?
The other difficulty is that feeling rushed can quickly kill a muse, especially when I’m desperately wanting to paint. At one point Kristie turned to me and said, “I’ve seen fifteen places that would have been perfect, so I have no idea what you’re waiting for.” David, my son, even called during our trip and asked why we we couldn’t “just settle” on a location.
Public Service Announcement: Artists are a different breed, and “settling” just isn’t an option when we already have a vision. This sure is hard to explain to someone else though…
Kristie finally said, “Let’s just start driving and when we come to a crossroads we’ll flip a coin.” So, we put away our phones and maps and decided to get lost on purpose, trusting in Providence to lead the way. We were having fun flipping our coin and winding through back roads. Then, at one intersection, we flipped heads and turned in that direction until my gut told me to go left instead. We made a U-turn and within a moment crested a hill that overlooked an idyllic farmstead.
It was perfect!
There was a place to park, a place for me to set up and paint, and birds were chirping gently in the background. We arrived at about 4:30 with picturesque afternoon sun highlighting the edges of both trees and the kaleidoscope of carefully cultivated fields.
As we surveyed the spot, a gentleman drove up on his four-runner to see what two strangers were doing on his family’s property. After sharing my desire to paint the scene, more of his family drove up to see what was happening. They smiled and said the only stipulation they had was seeing the painting when I finished.
Throughout the afternoon they continued to drop in periodically to chat and check on the painting’s progress. You know how much I love to talk and teach, but when the the sun is setting on my perfect scene I might get a bit anxious about capturing the the nuances that photos can’t. Fortunately, I’m a veteran. Something I’ve learned after 30 years of outdoor painting is that interruptions happen. They always have and always will. They’re a part of the joys and challenges of the plein air experience.
It’s never bothered me to have people peek in, but some of us are shy, or lack confidence, and don’t want people viewing our art until its finished. Sometimes I explain that I just started and it’s only a wash on the board, not that impressive to look at, but they’re welcome to stick around for the firework finale. I love how many kind and curious people are fascinated by what we artists do, and my hope is that those around us never lose that fascination or friendliness.
I got the painting as far as I could before the light was lost behind a low bank of clouds.
Our final morning, we returned to the Sacred Grove site where I was able to quickly set up all my equipment and start painting. What a blessing having Kristie with me, not only for the exceptional company and conversation, but also to help haul equipment to the site and back.
Apparently the grove is a popular place on weekends. Many people stopped and looked, some commented, some wrote down my name, and some took pictures. After an hour and a half of squinting and then recording the values and color temperature shifts of the dancing trees, the hazy morning light turned to stark afternoon sun and it was time to head home. Happily, the painting was more than enough to turn into, or to assist in creating, a more complete studio painting later on.
This photo below of the same scene shows the importance of on-location studies and painting. Notice how blue green the color appears. The photo is incorrect – the painting captures the color temperature accurately while the photo misleads the viewer.
The Beech trees there are magnificent. Although I chose the intimate setting and dynamic mixture of younger growth plants, the grandeur of the large Beech trees creates a perceptibly peaceful composition that is inspiring. If I had enough time I would have loved to do 2 or 3 plein air studies in this location.
I tweaked the photo of these Beech trees using Photoshop based on the colors in my on-site study. The original photo was as blue green as the photo above it. I love this scene, and it will more than likely become a future painting. In fact, this may be a good candidate for one of our members only Paint Together months.
Now, finding a spot to paint would normally not be half so difficult as I described here. My struggles to find a suitable location were exacerbated by my desire to create an instructional video that would capture teaching elements – strong abstract shapes and directional forces, contrasting value patterns, warm and cool color temperature juxtapositions, challenging choices for simplifying a variety of competing interesting objects, and so on. Plus, hiking up awesome cliffs would be much more plausible without filming equipment.
I felt to share our recent experience because we artists all have our own decent sized lists of challenges when it comes to outdoor painting. Sometimes we invest money for travel and the expense adds pressure to paint something worthy. Maybe we’re placed under a tight deadline on occasion, or we have to console our cheerleaders when they ask, “How come you don’t have anything painted yet?” And of course the common difficulties associated with changing light, weather, insects, spectators, and equipment malfunctions.
But as with many difficult tasks, growth comes in the stretching and struggle. For those of you who paint outdoors, you know well that the fragrance of fresh air and a gentle breeze against your back, the melody of natures music, sensing and exploring the rough or smooth textures of a tree’s bark or a flower’s petals, the clarity of color and value that our eyes process far better then any camera – that is what we strive to capture on canvas. Each plein air experience is a singular and stirring adventure!
What’s your favorite aspect of plein air painting, and which challenges are your most difficult to deal with?
p.s. Many of you commented on the Happy Painting Palette Michael created for me, and how awesomely spacious and sturdy it looks. Michael has been working hard, and is almost finished perfecting a couple sizes that he’s going to make available to our community, so stay tuned!