I’m really excited to announce that I have been juried into the Sedona Artist Market! It’s an honor to show my work along side other local talented emerging and well established professional artists.
Come see my heart felt expressions of the local “wild” and sacred scenery! Home to four main spiritual vortexes and sweeping red rock country, Sedona is an incredibly unique and diverse place in the southwestern USA. I’m so inspired by it. Take a piece of it home with you! Visit my contemporary landscape oil paintings at BOOTH #5 anytime during business hours.
I believe May 18th marks the actual day Charles and I left our home in Vermont to travel the country in our van.
It was profoundly exciting and painful all at the same time. We left behind our home; the organic farm where we had lived and worked for about three years. We left behind the fields we had helped to cultivate, the farmers with whom felt like family, the yurt that contained all of our things and our energies, the farm cat Merlin who lived with us for two years and slept in our loft bed every night, all of our friends that we had made in the community of Worcester and Montpelier, Vermont, the maple sugarbush Charles was apart since the beginning, and the local artists gallery that I exhibited with monthly and participated in for years. We left behind the retreat homestead where we first met, where we had started our own individual healing paths. We left behind family, too, as many relatives lived close by. We left behind the Worcester Mountain Range, a view that really became the scenic backdrop to our lives, our simple and lovely reality.
Something I didn’t weigh too heavily in mind was also leaving behind an art practice that has been with me for years…which is painting large scale, painting indoors, and occasionally playing with different subject matter or styles. As an artist I tend to jump around a lot, which is great, but I never truly understood the significance of painting with the same process day in and day out for a long period of time. Its funny that this reflection comes up after exactly one whole year of exclusively painting “en plein air” in “wilderness” areas.
I read a blog post in a fine art newsletter that I got in my email a couple months ago. This obviously stuck with me somewhere in the recesses of my mind.
I think the theme of the piece was emphasizing quantity in painting vs. quality…but I remembered that this artist painted a pond near his house for 366 days, from the same spot, but at different times of day and throughout all the seasons. He created a book to illustrate this experience: REFLECTIONS ON A POND – A Visual Journal by Kevin Macpherson. The visual journal is extraordinary and beautiful, as well as his written reflections.
“Over a four-year period, he came to see the pond as both a complex physiological phenomenon as well as a psychological experience that can only be appreciated in viewing the series as a whole. In seeing as an artist, Macpherson shows the viewer both continuity and change – a state of constant becoming, as opposed to being…. Life as a process of time.
But this is not simply a series about seeing as an artist. There can be no translation of the visual experience without feeling. Intermixed within Macpherson’s eye is his heart. Emotions emerge in the paintings and are echoed in his commentary. Changes in the pond became a metaphor for changes in his personal life and in life surrounding him: a heart attack in the family, the death of his companion cat, doubts about his career, the joy of friendships, anger over a neighbor’s ruthless tree cutting.”
My own personal journey of painting plein air, outdoors on site, for one year, has allowed me to dive deeper into painting in general. My focus has obviously been on seeing, and not painting from memory, photographs, or any subject matter other than landscapes at the edge of the wilderness or the backcountry. What’s unique is the idea that these plein air paintings serve as a kind of diary of my trip, of our travels, of my experiences hiking and navigating throughout the wild.
At times I’ve felt incredibly bored, dissatisfied with my work, tired of hauling my backpack around and not having adequate space to touch up or dry paintings. I wake up with the sudden urge to do a portrait from life (poor Charles!) or to print out a blurry picture of my travels on the road and make a 3 by 4 foot painting inspired by it. But somehow my discipline and love of this particular process…and my real inability to do anything BUT plein air painting at a small scale while living and traveling in the van, has helped me to grow tremendously in my craft. This year more than any other year since I graduated from art school, has been more about personal growth and observation than anything else.
In art school I did large scale oil paintings based on reference photos, color studies, drawings, and sometimes little plein air sketches. I would abstract them in an attempt to draw more attention to the mood of the scene and to the physical qualities of the oil paint. I liked Gerhard Richter and David Lynch. I was also in a much darker place emotionally in my life. In Vermont during my healing process from a traumatic accident, I experimented with incorporating symbolism into nature. I asked for the fish skeleton off another patients dinner plate so that I could incorporate it into a piece that I was working on. I took pictures of road kill and made paintings out of them, sometimes on surfaces that I found in the trash like sheetrock or an old framed broken mirror that looked like a tombstone. On the farm I was obsessed with painting the Worcester Range, but I was still doing a million other things and painting at various scales.
This year marks the first year, and the LONGEST amount of time that I’ve stayed with one process and one subject- which has been wilderness and wildlife refuge areas. In compassion to Macpherson’s pond, clearly I could narrow in on my subject matter even further. One of my favorite artists, Alex Kanevsky, gave a lecture at my school, and talked about how he made dozens of paintings based on a single lit red apple emerging out of complete darkness. I’ve never been able to commit to something like that until now. In a way, I kind of felt intentionally “forced” into the plein air world, and in another way I feel like I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of something incredibly deep both within myself, within nature, and within history.
While the voice in my head rambles on and on about other ideas, I continue painting nature as much as I can, anywhere from 3 to 5 days a week. My goal is to paint 7 days a week with 2-3 sessions on the weekend. Its not easy. The amount of times I pack and unpack my painting gear starts to feel like “painting boot camp.” I think all break throughs and growth have this level of consistency, repetition, and routine. Its like, when your doing pilates and you begin to feel the burn, you want to stop, right? But the feeling you get on the other side of that burn, that transformation that happens when you’ve developed a new muscle or skill and you’re suddenly able to take your practice to the next level, you start to go places you never thought you’d go.
It takes a lot of courage to stick with something. You really have to face all the failures, challenges, insecurities, comparisons, and rejections that come with trying to master one thing. You have to let go of the other things you are interested in exploring. You have to really feel how far away you are from understanding “the essence” of something in particular. The more you do something, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Commitment, in any aspect of life, makes you vulnerable, requires sacrifice. But the rewards are worth it.
So if you’re feeling scattered or unmotivated, just keep going. Consider creating your very own “one year challenge.” I have no intention of changing my practice right now. If this year has taught me anything, its that I’m no where near the plein air painter I’d like to be! So cheers to improving, growing, and creating every day.
Did you know that I’ve created my own book, called Ecotones? Its about this very experience, painting national parks en plein air across the country. You can purchase the book on this website under the tab “available” or on my Etsy store! Not sure? I give a free reading, accessible on youtube.
Painting from life, whether en plein air painting, still life or figurative painting, requires direct observation. This means the subject portrayed in three dimensional reality is translated and expressed onto two dimensional surface. The painter is now capturing an experience rather than simply an image, and must organize a point of view amid a multitude of optional perspectives. The painter also paints through the filters of what energetically is being perceived, emotional states, memories, and learned responses.
Observation is a powerful tool. It creates a sense of balance within the subjective creation of an artwork, captures a specific moment in time, and can create a bridge between illusion and delusion.
As an intensely emotional being, both highly sensitive and imaginative, the practice of objectivity both helps me in creating a stable mind, and offers a familiar language to the viewer, an entry point between a noun and a feeling.
A stable, objective mind is what the practice of mediation and yoga offers. In this realm, we are capable of being the observer…of our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions, our bodies. When we are able to step away and see from different perspectives, we are capable of being more compassionate, more tolerant, and more aware human beings.
The practice of objective painting alone won’t necessarily offer this deeper practice of genuinely being the observer. But when we live in a holistic way, and take this state of mind into other areas of our existence; immense growth, healing, and understanding can take place. This has been a revelation for me.
I recently made a huge life style shift, from living in the gentle rolling green hills of Vermont, to the wild west, where the desert is harsh and a lot of the land has been unfairly exploited. From being surrounded by Bernie supporters, I now find myself around Trump supporters. And while I don’t agree with the division taking place politically in our country right now, I have my own preferences and set of values that are usually supported where I’m from in Vermont. It is within this feeling of isolation, within this stance of feeling like a minority, that the power of observation has helped me to grow and become a stronger, more compassionate human being. Instead of becoming rigid and rebelling against the behaviors and ideals of the places I find myself in, I’ve begun to soften, I’ve begun to try to see from another person’s perspective, even if I don’t agree with it.
Around the same time I was going through this trial period, I had a painting that I was working on that just wasn’t working out. I must have gone back to the same spot several times, trying to get the foreground to work with the distant mountains and red rock cliffs, and I couldn’t find a solid composition. I came back to the same trail head to begin a different painting, so I took a different hike and left my usual orientation. Still not finding an inspiring scene where everything clicked, I turned around and there it was, the answer to what wasn’t working in the previous painting. It was a new foreground entirely with a slightly angled shift to the atmospheric mountains, but it still worked. Instead of trying to impose my views, the “right view” naturally aligned. Even though I had worked on this painting for a few sessions at this point, it felt as if I was beginning a new, as if I was seeing the scene for the very first time. Zen mind, beginner’s mind. The mantra for a happy life. A mantra to reduce suffering and strife. This aha moment made a lot of personal experiences clear to me. My anger from a lot of negative personal interactions turned into real compassion.
When we relate our lives to our art, significant changes can occur. The two are inextricably linked.
If you’re always standing from the same perspective, or around those who agree with you, you will have no opportunity for growth. It’s so important to embrace these shifts fully, in order to become a more transformative person and artist.
Amid so much violence and hatred that can occur between individuals and groups of people, any chance to practice kindness is ground breaking and revolutionary. It’s important to remain objective. We don’t live in a black and white world, a dualistic world. We live in a multi dimensionional world and we ought to reflect that.
The Dalai Lama once said in his essay, The True Source of Political Success, from the publication Dharma Rain,
“Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace (166).”
As I sit in a spiritually curated cafe facing a wall of enshrined gurus, I ponder this profound thought, and try to relate my own path as an artist to this ideal.
I truly believe that the seed of a person’s actions begin with some good intention. These intentions may be to bring more abundance or comfort to an individuals life, or to their families. The desire may be to create something as a means of connecting people or communities to each other. Creations may be tools for living or experiencing. It is when the seed blossoms into a business, an organization, or any kind of manifestation, that we have to check in with ourselves and ask,
Am I staying true to the original intentions of the seed that was planted? Am I asking too much of this idea? What are the consequences of my creation in the world?
Even though my painting practice is an extension of my joy and my desire for peace and awareness in the world, I still have to ask myself these questions along with a few others.
Am I painting to create another master piece for my portfolio, or am I painting to improve my craft, explore my vision, listen to the voice of nature, and create a cultural dialogue based in empathy and gentleness?
It could be both, but when I chase the former, I usually lose the ladder, and I don’t feel as good. The painting also isn’t as transformative or ground breaking.
I have to ask myself, am I painting to build my name as an artist, to make money, or am I painting from the heart center? Am I creating an expression of love and light? Is each and every brush mark a blessing? A prayer for peace?
I often look around and find that so many of the most important roles in our society struggle to make ends meet, and end up compromising certain inherent values and spreading themselves too thin. I look at a local yoga teacher or an organic small scale farmer, and their unique ability to transform the lives of everyone they touch. I also see the amount of individuals unable to support these extremely important figures and what they have to offer.
When we chase material forms of success, rather than what nourishes the mind, body, and soul, we are not meeting our needs as human beings. With this as a ripple effect, a lot of people in society aren’t getting their needs met either.
At the end of the day, one cannot ask too much of their art. We cannot ask too much of ourselves. We have to be kind to ourselves, to our own limits, to the limit of those who may work for or with us, to the limits of our earth.
When I think about success and progress, I often have a different view than most people.
Success in my opinion, is placing quality over quantity. Efficiency above expansion. Restoration instead of destruction. Connection versus alienation. Love instead of conflict.
If every individual created from a place of patience, tolerance, love, compassion, and responsibility rather than ego, hatred, stress, envy, competition, or craving, I think we would have a lot more peace in the world today.
Even as a painter, I have the choice between these modes of expression. I can put more effort into advancing my career or into advancing the authenticity of my practice. In a way I feel very lucky to be an artist, because when I’m creating for the wrong reasons, the effect is palpable in my work. All I can do is follow my truth. Just like a challenging yoga pose or the life cycle of a carrot, I can’t rush it. I can’t ask too much of it. I have to let go and allow myself the space to grow, to improve, to hone my vision.
I feel that every lover, healer, dreamer, needs to wander, needs to search, needs to practice self care and operate from a place of truth in order to really heal or make a difference. I hold that standard for myself and for my career as an artist. I deeply want to continue painting for the love of painting, and anything beyond that is a gift.
When I paint, I want to challenge myself, to feel vulnerable, to ascend to the highest version of myself, to bind with the spirit of mother earth. I want the panting to radiate these things.
So when I paint for the end goal of creating a more peaceful world, I have to come from a peaceful place within my inner world. I have to plant the seed of peace, and nurture this concept from start to finish.
Thank you so much for reading my thoughts. May you be happy and free of suffering. May you above all, treat yourself with loving kindness. May whatever it is that you do or make, flow from the stream of peace.
1. Don’t come with expectations, not just unrealistic ones, but any at all. Expectation only produces disappointment. You might not win awards, sell work, or make anything that you’re happy with, but this an opportunity to ask “why” and to learn ALOT. No opportunity is wasted if you learn something. Don’t go into this with preconceived notions, anywhere from This is going to be my big break, to I’m way out of my league, and every thought in between.
2. Embrace networking. Let it happen naturally. If you really loved a piece, or have a burning question, introduce yourself to that Artist. Talk to the other artists, especially the ones whose work you admire. Talk to the judges, patrons ect. There are plenty of conversation starters at an event like this. Remain open and attend the social events. Make sure to bring your business cards, too. Hand them out to people you meet, stick them in your name tag, and set them by your paintings. I didn’t do this, but I saw others doing it, and took note.
3. Zen mind, beginners mind. Come as a student, ready to learn. Painting in this sense is a lot like mediation. Even the most experienced meditator has trouble with the most basic principle, sometimes, not getting attached to certain thoughts. So, you return to the breathe, the foundation of being present. With painting, sometimes overwhelm or mental formations that come up get in the way of seeing, of painting. That is when you must return to some basic excersises, the foundations. Learn from what you’ve done wrong, and learn from the other painters. Study their colors, study their marks, study the hints of process in the finished piece. Attend the free demos. Plein air painting has a way of keeping the foundational principles of painting and making a compelling image in general at the forefront. Everyday you have the opportunity to study the same light and landscape as the other painters…this is beautiful meeting of minds and catalyst for growth.
4. Don’t compare yourself to the other participants and art works created. This, is easier said than done. Especially after looking at your work so much that you can’t even see it anymore. Nothing is accomplished by comparing yourself. Everyone has their own path, their own progression, moments of breaking through, and moments of feeling stuck. We are all evolving, as artists, as spiritual beings. You also can’t judge a book by its cover. Is this person a native to this place, and speaks the language of the scene? Did that person get in a fight with someone they love? Does this person paint 3 times a day as opposed to a couple times a week? We won’t know. Everyone has their own unique vision of the world, good days and bad days, as do we. So their approach and our evaluation is ultimately mostly subjective.
5. Keep it simple. There are really complex scenes in areas that are well reputed for outstanding natural beauty, features, what have you. Pick one aspect to focus on, and don’t be afraid of painting something overlooked or mundane. Is it the color compliments in the scene that draw you in? The atmosphere? The linear perspective? The contrast? Paintings can get too heavy if we try to implement too many “new things” at once or take on something too complex in a short period of time. Pick one aspect, and simplify the rest. Do a good amount of cropping to help with that. Make sure your format (panel or canvas size) can accommodate that cropping. I would recommend super horizontal surfaces (exaggerated rectangles) for dense or vast scenes. Do a lot of squinting and finger framing, or if you have a view finder, that works too. I made some little wooden ones, but I think they sell small metal versions for this specific purpose.
6. Make friends with the locals and tell them that you are participating. They may have a perfect little remote spot right in their backyard! We met a hot chili vendor at the farmers market in Escalante, and he invited us over to paint and pick apples at his property.
7. Take pictures of the work that sold or won awards (that moves you too, obviously). Sketch their compositions. Place a black and white filter in them to see their values. Understand their process and perhaps what helped them to stand out against the others. It’s always helpful to take note of a compelling visual.
8. Keep your emotions out of it. As artists we are emotional beings, sensitive to every little thing. Getting rejected can really hurt, and getting attention can really swell the ego and create some serious blindness. So neither extreme is helpful. Learn to seperate yourself from your work, because it will be critiqued in some way by the public, by the other artists, and the by judges indirectly and directly. The worst is when nothing is said about your work at all. Don’t read into it. Accept constructive cristicm, ignore destructive criticism, and move on.
9. Call it a plein air painting festival, instead of a competition. Set yourself up for fun, not winning or losing. Art is not about that. Words have so many implications, you can create abundance and so much positivity just with the words that you use and how they manifest out into the universe. Based in this principle, there is no room for bad vibes or negative self talk! So lift up the collective energy and be festive instead of competitive. Make friends not opponents.
10. Critique your own work at the end. Create a plan of how you can improve where you think you may have fallen short. Write a list of your own strengths and weaknesses. Implement what you’ve learned and keep an eye out for what challenges you in your daily painting practice. Create excersises for yourself to address your own personal critiques and maybe even the criticism that others have offered to you. Examples of this include but are not limited to: value and compositional drawings before painting, painting thicker, adjusting medium ratios, adding or subjecting colors to your palette, painting monochrome.
Being an artist is how I connect to my surroundings, its how I make sense of the world.
Its a calling that I can’t ignore, not just a hobby. I’ve been making “art” since I could hold a crayon.
The only reason I am a “professional artist” is because I can’t imagine doing anything else with my time. So it has to work. I have to somehow make it work.
Art has been the hand that I held throughout a traumatic childhood. It accepted me when I felt rejected. In a way you could say it has been the foundation to my personality. My paintings were my friends when I didn’t feel like I had any. I would even venture to say that art is my identity.
And that is where I need to stop and re-evaluate.
Art is a part of my identity, it is not my identity. And ultimately, I am not even my identity. I am so much more than that. I am a living and walking miracle, perfect in my nature. I am already the creation that I am always striving to create. Do I believe this?
Sometimes, but not always.
When push comes to shove, I’m willing to let the whims of my creative process push me around like an abusive boyfriend. Funny enough, when I believe in myself the most is when my art wins awards, or sells, or when I feel confident about what I create. When all the right forces come together in a painting and I am channeling something of the divine. But what happens when the forces of the divine don’t blow through me and onto an eight by ten inch masonite board through the medium of paint? What happens when I’m sitting in a room full of talented professional artists and I don’t win any awards? I don’t sell one piece. The paintings are not even recognized by the public, by the magazines, or by the other artists, even.
Yes, this happened to me recently. I hit a real deep low in the desert for a few trying days. I felt like a failure, beyond rejected, a blundering joke unworthy of the title artist. Maybe even unworthy as a person. But those are my deeper insecurities coming out, veiled by a normally flowing stream of creativity and other distractions and maybe some sales or acceptances along with the rejections. But here I am in the desert, feeling alone with only this rejection, and nothing else. Faced with the very thing that I fear the most. The desert is a strange and sublime place. On one hand it will test your “identity” and on the other it is this giant container that will hold you through that process. “The truth” is all around you. And if you ignore it, it will haunt you.
I’m realizing that I had fallen into a recurring pattern that I’ve had all my life, and that I’ve worked on since a traumatic accident I had right after I graduated from art school, that kept me in hospitals and in rehab for a year. And the healing process took even longer than that, I would say that I’m still in it. I used to measure my self worth or self love in how much I weighed, or what other people thought of me. How much love they could give me, or the illusion of it. As artists, we have to be careful of our self destructive behaviors, of our obsessions. Even one’s art can become self destructive, it can become an obsession if you’re not careful. And I noticed the line between “my art” and “me” began to blur again.
I spent the whole summer, painting more than I have in a long time. I made the switch from studio painting and creating outdoor studies, to plein air painting. And while I thought this transition would be easy because I’ve been oil painting for such a long time, its actually been very challenging. No refuge or distance between “studio” and “home.” The mess of my life in one large messy heap. I’ve been looking forward to the Escalante Canyon Arts Festival in Utah all summer, thinking I would really have the opportunity to advance my career as a “professional artist.” We got there the first day, in a total rush, and I barely caught the daylight to paint towards the end of a long hike in the hot sun. The next few days were full of emotional and physical stressors, hiking in the unforgiving canyons, through slick rock, cottonwood brush, and sand. Mud was caked on my back from sweating as I toted around my big backpack filled with art supplies. My shorts smelled like urine from drinking so much water and constantly squatting to pee. No shower or creek to bathe in afterwards.
Thoughts in my head were geared towards, what will the judges, what will others think of this. And as anyone knows, this is creative suicide.
The ego, in my opinion, is the anti-thesis to art. And I was very much in my ego. The whole notion of being in a competition and being the best, made my painting suffer a lot, and that showed. It made me suffer a lot.
My mom always tells me that suffering is created by having expectations. Nothing is a given. Not even the person you love the most and that you think will always be there. I made the mistake of having a lot of expectations, of myself, and the artwork I produce. Of thinking that “I” = “my art.”
Art is less like a linear progression, and more like waves in the ocean. Progress peaks, and it falls. It flows, or it doesn’t. No matter how professional and quantifiable you try to make your art practice, neither are givens. Not if your creating from the soul, anyways. Not if you allow an once of subjectivity to enter into your objective process.
Art is inherently subjective. Yes there are those that will try to equate it to intellect, or science, genius even! But art in my mind is the spirit in motion. For the record, I saw many paintings that didn’t sell or win awards that I would have picked, that I really loved. And I am a Pratt graduate, an individual that spent years among old masters and contemporary masters alike in New York City. Art, even good art, will face rejection. Contrary to some other blogs that I’ve read in attempt to not feel so alone, sometimes I face more rejection than acceptance, sometimes a lot more.
After days in the darkness, the light began to poke through again.
I suddenly had a rush of a revelation. “I” am so much more than this. I don’t really know where it came from. We’ve been meditating all week every morning together.
And then I said, ah ha, It was after my morning yoga practice that this happened, that I allowed myself, just for an hour, to be alone, to be empowered in my mind and in my body. But somehow I had forgotten to practice during the week of the competition. I had forgotten to put myself and my healing first. Or perhaps it was just the practice that I needed to cement the mounting truth that my negative self talk was trying to bury, deep in the sand of my being. Perhaps I needed a moment in the darkness to recognize the light again. The yoga sparked the little seedling of truth that was crying out, asking me to look deeper, to be compassionate, asking me to love myself and have gratitude, without conditions. I almost felt like I was possessed, not by evil, but by the spirit.
What I produce is not a measure of myself worth, my value as a human being.
A good or a bad work of art does not determine whether or not I am lovable, whether or not my life is worth living.
“I” am not determined by art sales, awards, or positive recognition.
My therapist and “zen mentor” once told me before I left for this trip, “Don’t let your art pull the wagon.”
I was offended at the time, secretly saying in my head, “You don’t think I can do it!?” While I nodded in agreement, trying to appear wise and on her level. And I understand what she meant now.
Does this mean I will stop entering competitions, or trying to be “a professional artist?” No, quite the opposite actually. By some strange twist of fate there is another plein air competition next week in Moab, Utah, and I plan on participating in it. What has to change is my mindset. What has to transform is my own sense of self, belonging, and worth. Every step forward is another opportunity to practice that.
Do you tiptoe into the water, or do you jump? Does it depend on your mood or the circumstance? Painting can be a lot like swimming. Adapting to the unknown, transitioning your body between elements, and maybe splashing around awkwardly until you get the hang of the right strokes.
The unrippled pool or in this case, the blank panel, can be the most intimidating part of the plein air process, at least it has been for me. I thought I’d share how I deal with this “void” and create smoother transitions between making the first marks, whether that means construction lines, blocking in, or a combination of techniques.
I was always more of a studio painter when it came to oil painting, and I took that practice outdoors with me. This means I learned to separate elements like composition, value, color, and atmosphere in layers of mediums with different ratios. “Putting it all together” and the alla prima technique has been a real challenge for me, and I think that’s what keeps bringing me back to en plein air painting. Ironically, this has also presented some blocks in my studio practice as well. So if you’re facing the same challenge in your outdoor painting practice, check out these simple solutions that seem to work for me.
Covering up the void
When I was in rehab I turned an old children’s book into a sketchbook. The words made the page not precious or scary to me, and it led to some cool discoveries. Basically, getting rid of the white gesso not only eliminates the fear of the first mark, but also serves a very important function in the plein air process. If you want to fully complete an oil painting in a couple of hours, you need to start with a dried, oily toned ground. This is also important if you know you won’t be returning to the scene. The toning color doesn’t matter so much to me because I never know what light or scene I’m going to encounter, so I’ll often mix the colors before I scrape my palette at the end of a painting to tone the surface for my next paintings. This usually produces a light grey, a middle value shade that is usually pretty ideal for blocking in. Sometimes I’ll use a sky color if I’m doing a lot of water and sky, or yellow/red if I’m dealing with a lot of light. The grey end of palette color happens to be great for cloudy days or muted palettes, which I paint a lot of! I stay pretty true to a 50/50 oil gamsol ratio for the ground, perhaps using the gamsol a bit more liberally, but you want the paint to really stick and dry quicker when you get out to paint. Most of the paint application for me is thick and direct from the palette after I have a dry toned ground to work with.
Orientation and finding landmarks
I used to map out the painting with an oil sketch, which often frustrates me and turns the process into something more contrived than free flowing. More recently I’ve started to just make a couple of construction lines, to divide up the space based on the composition I’m looking for in the chaos of the scene. What has worked for me the most, has been blocking in with my darkest darks with the mentality of marking the landmarks. This could be big shapes, big shadows. I dance across the panel with my brush, somewhere between painting and drawing. This particularity has come from painting outside almost everyday, and just getting super comfortable with experimenting and navigating between 2 and 3 dimensional worlds. I have been feeling the composition, more than directly translating it. Plein air is more about pushing things around, rather than painting by numbers. And it has to be, because things can change so quickly outdoors!
Painting in front of other people
There is nothing like having a crowd of people watching you and walking past you when your beginning the most vulnerable and “ugly” part of the painting. Sometimes the process is beautiful, and sometimes it’s not! Painting in public has been a huge confidence booster, it made me realize how insecure about painting I am and how much that holds me back. Plein air is a lot about loosening up and letting go, two ingredients that you need in order to make a stellar painting in my opinion. I’ve learned how to embrace the fragility of feeling exposed, which in turn has pushed my ego and my insecurity out of focus, allowing me to loosen up and feel the scene more intuitively.
Pre mixing all your colors
Every mark in a plein air painting counts. I match all the colors from the scene to the colors in my palette, producing shades for each color, cool and warm, muted and vibrant. You need to have a keyed palette, but you can always mix directly on the panel and palette after you’ve found your bearings in the landscape. Like I said before, my darkest darks are usually my first marks now, so I want them to be the same color I’m going to use throughout the painting session.
So between toning your surface, block in sketching landmarks, painting in public, and pre mixing your palette, you should be able to head into battle armed and ready, as Winston Churchill would put it. Of course everyone is going to approach an outdoor painting differently, and part of how I discovered this process is by trying a bunch of different things and putting them together in a way that works for me. So if you haven’t tried one of these things before, I would encourage you to give it a go, and just see how it feels! Maybe it has a place in your mental toolbox.
Last fall, before my long winter hibernation, I participated in En Plein Air Painting Festival at The Vermont Institute of Natural Science and Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Quechee, Vermont.
I painted on the trails, by the river, marshes, and in the open meadow for seven days, capturing the peak of New England fall foliage, my palette a swathe of earth tones and warm pigments. Before all my painting sessions I visited the incredible raptors; owls, ravens, bald eagles, hawks, and falcons. On one of the last days I painted a male snowy owl and two Ravens. They felt so mystical and wild, it was an awesome opportunity.
I ended up getting second place in the quick paint competition. This means you finish your outdoor painting in less than four hours. It was raining so I stood under my umbrella, rain drops dripping from my hood, and my hands getting pretty wet and cold. I also made the front page of the local paper! The photographer captured the exact light I was attempting to capture in the scene by the river.
In 2018 I taught my first Plein Air Painting Workshop, focused on foundational oil painting techniques and the process of en plein air painting.
The most significant message during this course is that Nature is our greatest teacher. I wanted to encourage painters to ask the scene, not me, to answer certain questions pertaining to composition, shape, light, color, and depth. My hope was to encourage others to transcend modes of thinking, and communicate with their surrounding environment intuitively, deeply, and with an open heart.
This way of painting, and creating a flowing dialogue, has created a huge transformation for me, and continues to. It allows me to recognize the complex living organisms all around me, and for a moment to tap into that energy that words cannot describe. This connection nourishes my soul and increases my sense of compassion for something that I am apart of and inextricably linked to. To me en plein air painting is so much more than direct observation; it is an emotional and meditative experience that brings me to the very spirit of Nature. Its also about connecting with your own sense of adventure; swimming through tall grass, hungrily searching for a scene you feel kinship with, and breaking a sweat looking for the perfect spot!