I’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks. The first morning I awoke early to watch the mountains turn from lavender-teals to a variety of greens ranging from dark emerald, to soft olive, and then to bright avocado and eventually settling into a spectrum of veridians, cobalt and aquamarine-infused sap greens! I couldn’t help but remember a conversation I had with my mother years ago as we traveled by car through miles and miles of lush pastures and wooded areas in southern Missouri. As she and I were gazing out the window at nature’s beauty, she said something to this effect, “Isn’t that green beautiful?” and I replied, “Which green?” Even at my early elementary age I was visually able to separate the colors of green into different categories as one might distinguish the colors of the rainbow. After a short flight from Dallas to Vail, I magically entered an environment so different from my own and I couldn’t wait to paint!
The history of plein air painting is connected to the Impressionist artists. You can read about this radical bunch of folks here. For the first time, paint was manufactured and put into tubes enabling artists to actually leave the mixing stations of their studios, stroll into the great outdoors and plop down their easel and set up shop. This type of painting has to be executed quickly as the environments’ colors change in the blink of an eye. For instance, once when I’d set up my easel on the edge of a cliff on the Pacific Ocean, I looked down to mix the perfect color of ocean waves, looked back up to start painting and the entire color scheme had changed because the sun had gone under some clouds! Another time, I quickly looked down to mix the colors of the sky and looked up and the wind had swept all the clouds away!
My good friend and life mentor, Judith D’Agostino, taught me how to take on this challenge during the years she lived in San Diego, California. She’s been a professional painter for years and has taught many students the joys associated with tubes of paint, mineral spirits and an assortment of brushes. Landscape has always fascinated her and her styles have oscillated between realism and abstract. After instructing me on what tools and materials to buy and how to pack it all up for travel, I began a love/hate affair as I resisted the temptation to chase the light. Attempting to capture the colors, form and emotions of a complex landscape on a simple canvas board proves to be arduous, but delightful! Judith lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and paints full time. She’s painted beautiful landscapes from coast to coast and has been a guest painter at the Door County Plein Air Festival in Wisconsin . Working side-by-side her I’ve discovered painting en plein air is very formidable! Not only do you have to paint quickly, but you have to become indifferent to the sun and wind in your face and to ignore the conversations of passersby as they quietly chat about your work to one another within earshot. It is frightening to look up, after squirting out paint, and make the first brushstroke. How do you take in all of nature and attempt to communicate it on a flat canvas, mine no larger than an 8” x 10”?
If the oil paint didn’t take a week to dry, people would often buy these small canvases on the spot. Many people stop and gaze out into nature and watch me capture the colors and textures. They begin to feel connected to the painting because they share the emotion of looking out into nature’s beauty alongside me. It is similar to taking a photograph of a beautiful landscape, except that they watch the image grow slowly; they watch the rocks form and the water ripple with a few brushstrokes. It seems that they observe nature more closely, by watching a painting grow one brushstroke at a time.
Nature is marvelous. Go explore it. Even if the act of painting is more than you are willing to try, what about taking a pencil and a small sketchbook and doing a 10 minute sketch of a scene? Or what about gazing out at nature and writing a short haiku about the sounds or sensations you are experiencing? Or take a picture. Or just sit and stare and observe the world up close. Meditate. Breath deeply. Listen to the wind and listen to the quiet, still voice inside.