The first landscape painting class I had the pleasure of attending was an utter failure, by the standards of even the most generous critic. The paintings were so amateurish and smudged that only the housekeeper showed any interest in them. She fished them out of the garbage, and as a result, now bears the burden of ownership of these disastrous works. I doubt they would make the cut as a garage sale item. Frankly, I am glad they are gone.
Strangely though, I wanted to continue to paint outdoors. Self-inflicted pain was not unknown to me, nor was performing an occasional humiliating move or two. Just, the names “plein air” and “alla prima” were beautiful enough to stir my heart. And of course the subject matter made me delirious. I could not stop myself from seeking the fresh air, paint brush at the ready.
Early on, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a good workshop, whose talented instructor was 15 years younger than me, 2 feet taller and fought fires on the side. He spoke very little, smudged out much of each of my paintings with his enormous pinky, and quoted Winston Churchill. Needless to say, we had little in common except a certain fever about the outdoors and oil paint.
At one point he looked straight into my green and somewhat crinkled eyes and said, “You’re hooked, aren’t you”? Inside, I was torn between the embarrassment of being “found out” and the relief at being understood, finally.
From that time forward, Nature—big, deep, and expansive, beyond any understanding–and Art became inseparable for me. All images, shapes and colors felt connected at some level to the natural world. Even in dreams, I believe the imprints of Creation in its infinite diversity are expressed. So I am drawn to the Source, in all its wonder.
Unfortunately, painting outdoors is arguably one of the most difficult forms of artistic expression(excluding those practices requiring large power tools and/or fire). And worth the price for only a few unique individuals. Sometimes outdoor painters are referred to as “energetic” or “driven” by those who love them, and “insane” or “misguided” by others.
After a day in the field, I have enjoyed removing all manner of tiny creatures from the most private parts of my body and have suffered patiently if not gladly, those I could not extract. I know avid plein air painters who rose to greet the crisp morning and capture that “certain slant of light”, only to find that as the sun rose and warmed the ground, they were sharing their reverie amidst a family of rattlesnakes.
I have watched in breathless awe as geese silently slipped across my view in winter, or in trepidation as copperheads twisted and cruised by in creeks during the summer. I have rubbed my toes back to life after a couple hours standing in snow, unaware of the chilly temperature. Seduced by the light and shadows cast on the thick blanketed landscape, my focused rapture was thankfully over before frostbite set in.
In the subtropical summers in Tennessee I have started painting just after dawn so as to finish my work before my pungent sweatiness offended more than just my own nostrils. My sketches have been dropped in dirt, kamikazed by knats, and doused by rain. Sometimes that’s been a problem, sometimes not.
For some, the gear alone can be daunting. I consider it just another form of GAMing (Gear Accumulation and Manipulation). A little-known concept invented by a friend far more creative than myself, and has cross-disciplinary applications and insights for any gear-dependent activity. (More to come on this subject in my article “GAMing and the Great Outdoors”).
My gear is now trimmed down to a minimalist shoulder pack for quick excursions and a larger backpack for longer outings. I have witnessed enough tragic incidents involving umbrellas, stools, and French easels to avoid any superfluous or downright dangerous gear. And the legend of the late plein air workshop attendee found lifeless under her large pack at the bottom of a ravine made a lasting impression on me, true or not. I could definitely imagine myself stumbling into some slapstick-type move, and finding my own sorry self flattened like Wile E. Coyote pinned beneath his latest Acme purchase.
Despite all the real and imagined perils, I cannot stop painting from Life. For me, the outdoors provides the most clearly authentic experience of the Now. Each moment is an original, never to be replicated. Painting, surrounded by Nature heightens awareness of one’s own mortality and has honed my attention to the fleeting moments of ecstatic beauty. Being outside is rarely something I take for granted now. The tiny beautiful moments that happen while the painter studies a landscape for a few hours are simply irreplaceable.
How few activities in life involve a quiet meditation on what is laid before your eyes and then deliberately absorbed by every sense. Even on my worst day, with only a messy throwaway canvas to show for my efforts, I leave the field filled with Peace. I was a voyeur in my past, dreaming of painting. Being a participant is infinitely better.