I can’t remember the last time I painted my subject dead center in a symmetrical composition. But the live oak tree at Oak Marina had such a commanding presence yesterday morning that I decided to give it a go. It probably is 500 years old, with at least three main trunks coming up out of a common root, typical of live oaks in the wild. I remember learning when I was running a campground near where I now live, that when a branch of a live oak is plowed under, soon there will be several sprouts coming up from it, and which if allowed to grow, will form a small grove, all with a common root. Some trunks might join together, like this giant oak appeared to. It’s crown stretched at least three-fourths of the way across the water-frontage of the marina.
I was painting with the Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters, the local group of weekly-painting plein air artists. I have volunteered to be the group’s coordinator of this year. Every Sunday I email everyone with the coming Wednesday morning location, and whoever shows up paints. For myself, I find that painting plein air with a group provides a social component that gets me out to paint when I otherwise might just blow it off, like when things are hectic at work or the weather is iffy.
The clouds came and went, rapidly changing the colors of the subject. sometimes the reflected light on the hard shiny leaves was blue, and then when the sun came out again, the colors would warm and glow. The Spanish moss swung underneath with the light breeze. The tree is so big that when you stand underneath it, it gives a feeling of rock-solid fortress-like security, but from a distance, it looked young again. This was one of those days that I personally identified with my subject.
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With the heat index over 100, any activity requiring intense focus, such as plein air painting, can actually become dangerous, because staying cool and hydrated is not the first thing on your mind. Instead you are focused on capturing just the right amount of rose in that barely orange chunk of concrete, or the touch of sky blue reflected on a shadowy surface. But the heat has no mercy. So only 3 die-hard painters without good sense showed up this week to paint. I was glad I was one of them — every time I paint, I learn.
I was painting with the Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters at Coffeen Nature Preserve in Miramar Beach, Florida. World War II bunkers and missile tracks punctuate the beautiful nature trails wending through the wild. A few small areas of the preserve are groomed for recreational use and sight-seeing. Outside of the preserve are the houses of Four Mile Village. Caretakers Bruce and Susan Paladini watch over the preserve, welcoming guests and providing information. You have to call ahead and get their permission to visit.
I have fond memories of the area. Long ago I used to visit my dear friend Jane Henkle who lived in Four Mile Village. She would take me over the dunes to the coastal dune lake bordering the preserve, and we would sketch and paint. The last time I came to the Village was to visit her daughter after Jane died.
Every time I have come to the Preserve and to Four Mile Village, I have avoided looking at the giant barn, the first structure you come to after checking in at the office. I have always thought it generally to be a monstrosity, such a big building situated in the middle of the wild, natural beauty. But yesterday in the morning light, it caught my eye.
I sketched in the light and shadows first, to help me remember what it looked like when I finished the painting at the end of the allotted 3 hours. I left the sky until last, not sure whether it was going to cloud over or not. What initially interested me in the composition were the dark openings of the doors in the broad sunlit side of the barn, but I also noticed the sky blue reflected on the shady side of the building, and the brightly lit tree in front of that side. And then I got distracted by the intricacies of the trailer full of brush trimmings, and then the light behind the sand pile! What a fun painting, every part of it!
I finished it and then drank about a gallon of water!
Uncertain whether it would rain or not, I deployed my sun umbrella when I set up to paint with the Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters at our weekly outing, this week at Deer Lake State Park. The beach breeze promptly blew it over and inside-out despite my wraps of rope around the stem. I was a little craftier in in how I tied it down the second time. I had to head it into the wind a little, which meant it initially was useless but 45 minutes later, it shaded my palette and canvas perfectly. And it never rained while we painted.
Deer Lake State Park contains beautiful, unspoiled, pristine sand dunes. The very long boardwalk is elevated to provide superior views in all directions, protecting the habitat below from feet beating a trail to the beach. Clouds came and went, but that didn’t matter as I blocked in the skyline of dunes and water. However, when I looked for the light and shadow the next time the sun came out, I realized I had forgotten to put my whites on my palette. I looked for them in my collection of tubed paints – nope, not there. Apparently still sitting on my table in my studio. Now what? The other painters were all a good hike away from me, so I decided to paint without borrowing white for as long as I could. I had toned the bottom half of the canvas with beige acrylic before I started, so it wasn’t stark white. The dunes were very white though, where the bare canvas showed in between the painted bushes and grass. I decided that was a good thing. I decided that I might not need white, if I could be disciplined enough to not paint where the white needed to be.
Park visitors walked past me, on their way to the beach, but some stopped to watch. They complimented my work, and some talked to me. I enjoyed that. There are times when I am seriously challenged by my painting, when I might not be in the friendliest of moods, but today’s painting was fun and interesting. Working without white made me a bit nervous, but it also provided an excuse if the painting didn’t turn out good, so I think I may actually have been fairly relaxed.
The group met in the picnic shelter back at the parking lot, for our “soft” critique, and we then packed up and met at a local restaurant for lunch.
Blue moon is the term for the second full moon in a single month. The color of the moon is normal, not actually blue. It happens about every 3 years. Painting the blue moon is an opportunity that comes, well (forgive me), only once in a blue moon. So I had to paint, instead of beating a drum, at the Blue Moon Drum Circle last night. My dear friend Leslie Kolovich organizes drum circles once a month, usually in her studio. It had been touch and go whether we would be able to meet on the beach for the moonrise, the weather forecast changing by the hour. The night before, she and I had actually come up with Plan B in case we were rained out, creating a slide presentation of images of the blue moon (most of them tinted blue) that we found on the internet, that we would project onto one wall of her studio, sized to cover the whole wall. But we were thrilled that Plan A worked out. Being a plein air painter and a nature enthusiast, I think that anything outdoors is infinitely preferable to being indoors.
I quickly set up while the drum circle participants socialized. I used a wash of red and black acrylic paint to tone my 8×10 stretched canvas before I started. I was eliminating the stark white of the canvas, so that distracting white hollows of the canvas texture would not show underneath if my hasty brushstrokes skipped across the canvas in my hurry to capture what I knew would be quickly-fading light. I am an oil painter, and I wanted my wash to be dry before I started – the reason for the wash being acrylic.
I joined the drum circle for the stating of goals. Leslie explained that the energy and timing of the blue moon is perfect for enlisting the support of others in the attainment of our goals, if spoken out loud. We all listened to each others goals — mine to someday retire and become a full-time painter. Afterwards the group began drumming, an easy gentle beat, while I returned to my easel to lay in the basic shapes of the beach, the dune skyline, the Gulf of Mexico, and the sky. The sound of the waves added an ebb and flow to the rhythm of the drums. Occasionally someone would start chanting, and I smiled when someone led everyone in a couple of wonderful howls, calling to the moon that was still beneath the horizon.
When it became difficult to distinguish the colors on my palette, I turned on my tiny book lights — one for my canvas and one for my palette. Shortly after that, I heard someone “Ohhhhh” over the sound of the drums, and a couple of people stood and craned their necks towards the distant coastline,and I saw a glow behind one of the structures on the beach. They, with their view unobstructed, saw the reddish moon peeking over the dunes. In a few minutes I did too, a beautiful red-orange orb, bright enough to make the close clouds glow.
Every painter is familiar with the anxiety of having a nervous twitch just at the moment of laying the brush tip on the canvas to render a detail. It’s worse when you are painting a starkly contrasting color. Especially orange. “Confidence, my lady, do not fear!” And just that fast, the moon was in the painting! Soon after that, I stopped, picked up my paints and backpack and trekked back to my car. I took a photo of my painting and texted it to Leslie along with a few photos of the group at sunset.Then I rejoined the group for a little drumming of my own.
But there was something bothering me about the painting that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Later, when Leslie received my texts, she texted back, “The beach looks like snow.” That’s a common description of our sugar-white sand beaches here on the Emerald Coast of Northwest Florida, but I wondered what I needed to do to make it look more like a beach. Then it dawned on me — beach vegetation! So this morning I popped in a little vegetation suggesting sea oats in front of the dunes, and that made all the difference. I pronounced the painting Done.
Below is a pen-and-ink sketch of another one of our drum circles, drawn inside Leslie’s studio during the drumming.