Florida’s Finest Ambassador and Artist-in-Residence
“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.” ~John Muir
I was honored to be invited to be the Artist-in-Residence for the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air this spring. My artist residency is split into two parts over three weeks. I spent 4 days on the Forgotten Coast of Florida last week and I will spend another 3 days there again next week, continuing to study and to paint the 2019 theme for Forgotten Coast en Plein Air, which is “Recovery in the Natural Environment” relative to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael in October of 2018. My personal approach to this project focuses on Hope.
I am hosted by a sweet couple, George and Maggie Jones on Cape San Blas, just a few miles south of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. They didn’t see much of me while I was there last week because I was out every day, observing, painting, photographing, and absorbing, from first light until sunset.
The Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast
Joe Taylor, CEO of Franklin’s Promise Coalition, invited me to see the mitigation efforts of the Conservation Corps and Disaster Corps that were happening last week. Marquette High School (Rockwood School District, St. Louis, Missouri) sent 120 students to spend their spring break here to assist in hurricane recovery and mitigation. They were planting sea oats, building living shorelines, picking up trash, and helping to restore longleaf pine forests. Accompanied by teacher and staff volunteers and two principals, Dr. Dan Ramsey and Amy Blumenfeld, Marquette High School chose the Forgotten Coast for their service project this year.
When people are motivated and leadership is effective, a lot of work gets done. The Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast posted on their Facebook page, “What an awesome Spring Break! Our CCFC GulfCorps and Disaster Corps Crews hosted 120 of the most energetic and hard working teens from Marquette High School in St. Louis, MO. They completed 6 service projects in three days. They helped restore the dunes by planting sea oats on the beach behind the SGI Lighthouse, they rebuilt the living shoreline on Sawyer Street, they removed hurricane debris from Unit 4 (East Hole) on SGI, at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve Visitor Center grounds, and throughout Tate’s Hell State Forest. And they cleaned, weeded, and layed fresh pine straw for the Reid Avenue businesses in Port St. Joe. They were such fun young people and they really worked hard to help our communities recover from Hurricane Michael.”
I was interested to learn that the leadership development for this effort is funded by the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill settlement. The program crosses five states — Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The Forgotten Coast chapter and a chapter in Mississippi are the pilots, models for the others. I met crew manager Holden Foley who is one of these trained leaders. He was supervising one of the groups of students.
Per the website: “The GulfCorps initiative is a major part of The Corps Network’s activities on the Gulf Coast. Made possible by a $7 million RESTORE Act grant administered by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), GulfCorps officially launched in August 2017. Over three years, funds will be distributed evenly to the five Gulf Coast states to support existing local Corps in hiring young adults to conduct restoration and conservation activities. The Corps Network, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Student Conservation Association (SCA) will facilitate recruitment, training, and identification of projects. GulfCorps is expected to provide jobs to 300 young adults over the coming years.” ~CorpsNetwork.org
Planting Sea Oats
The first couple of days were cloudy or hazy, not the best light for plein air painting. I sketched a lot and took photos. I was impressed by how fast the job went when I watched the kids planting sea oats in front of the lighthouse on St. George Island. 4000 sea oats had been purchased, their root masses still in the shape of nursery pots. Holden, the crew leader, gave shovels to some of the kids and to some he gave plants, and some took the super-absorbent polymer, a product holding moisture which is placed in the bottom of the hole under the seedling root mass. The kids were models for us to see what we all can do to get along, cooperate, and do good in our community in real, impactful ways. Below are a few pages from my sketchbook.
Joe pointed out to me the difference that last year’s planting of sea oats had made. Even though some had washed away in Hurricane Michael, they greatly stabilized the foredune, versus the area in front of neighboring private property bordering the planted area. There, the berm was heavily scarped by erosion, forming a 4-foot cliff.
Construction of a Living Shoreline
The light was a little brighter the second day, so I was able to produce a plein air study of the students organizing into a “bucket brigade” to carry bagged oyster shells out to the living shoreline they were building on the Bay at Sawyer Street on St. George Island. A living shoreline is the placement of barriers in the Bay near the shore, which break the force of waves and trap sand brought in by wave action. The shoreline rebuilds as a result, eventually covered by cordgrass. Oyster shells are used because they are natural to the area. The students had loaded the shells into biodegradable mesh bags in an assembly line of shoveling, scraping, and tying. TURN DOWN YOUR VOLUME — it was windy that day.
Cait Snyder, the ANERR’s land management and stewardship specialist and advisor for the project, introduced herself to me and offered any research advice I might need. ANERR, the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, focuses on scientific research, natural resource management and environmental education and stewardship and partners with local, state, and federal agencies for a multitude of projects.
Construction of a living shoreline requires a permit from the State and the Army Corps of Engineers, specifying where and how it will be built, with periodic gaps in the barrier so that the Bay critters and fish can swim back out with the tide. Where I stood when I set up to paint was exciting evidence of the success of prior barriers. Sand had accreted to a depth of more than a foot, and the spartina (Spartina alterniflora aka smooth cordgrass) had held up through Hurricane Michael, probably helping to prevent the road from being washed out. I visited with a local who thought the accreted dirt had come from the road. But I could see that the sand inside the living shoreline was very different from the dirt making up the road, so there was no confusion in my mind as to the Bay source of the sand. Cait told me that there even was a red mangrove tree coming up at the edge of the spartina, but that it didn’t appear to have survived the storm. I had no idea mangrove trees grew this far north. Cait said that historically red mangroves have existed in the northern Gulf, but have often been limited by cold events. She said fewer cold events, less intense temperatures, and shorter durations of freezing temps may be allowing mangrove expansion at the northern edge of their ranges in recent years.
Trash and Debris Collection
I also saw a couple of groups of the Marquette students cleaning up storm debris from ANERR Unit 4 on St. George Island and from Millender Park in Eastpoint. This task was very familiar to me, being the bulk of my own experience from cleaning up after tropical storms – there is so much trash, windblown, of course, and also waterborne by storm surge flooding. Hurricanes are giant mess-makers. The students had made piles of contractor bags full of trash, and grouped it into mountains for collection.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
Later that afternoon the sun came out, and I went to T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park to see the amazing breach again. I accidentally came upon a couple of deer, one full-grown, and the younger one nearly grown, certainly born last year, both of them survivors of the storm. They represent exactly the Hope I want to convey as my personal focus for the recovery theme of the residency, the reason I chose the John Muir quote to open this blog post.
Dawn brought bright sunshine on my third day there, and anticipating it, I was waiting at the entrance to the state park for the 8 AM opening of the gates. I was not disappointed. The area of the breach caused by Hurricane Michael’s storm surge has turned out to be a scenic wonder, different every time I see it. This morning, there were large tide pools on the Bay side, left by the tidal current running through the breach from the Bay to the Gulf. When time is fleeting, I use my phone-camera for my sketchbook. I took photos to document everything from the color of the water to the myriad of different kinds of ripples left in the tidal flats. I stood at the edge of the water for 20 minutes watching a new sand bar being formed, starting to enclose another small pool. Mother Nature was working to close the breach before my very eyes! I wonder how long it will take. When I first saw the breach 4 weeks ago, much of what had been a roiling hurricane current already was a sand flat, and this week I found the channel already only half as wide as it had been just four weeks ago. The sand on the Gulf side has piled up into a berm 4-feet thick. High winds of 18 to 20 mph overnight had glazed the plain of sand smooth as snow, with harrow marks where small shells dotted the surface.
I find the breach to be one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen, my imagination entranced by the majestic power of the Hurricane that carved through a peninsula hundreds of years old, perhaps thousands. The aerial imagery of the floor of the Bay in that area shows where a channel might have cut through before. Native American artifacts found there indicate activity over the length of the peninsula for a long time, but I guess they would have come on boats if the breach ever was open during their time on the peninsula. So I don’t know how old the peninsula is, or how long it’s been since it last was breached.
I stood my easel near the water’s edge to paint the far shore across the channel. I chose a small 6”x12” canvas because of the high winds. My study shows the old tree that was unburied by the sweeping storm surge, now standing alone by itself, a sentinel between the dunes and the channel. It seems to have a net or something hung up in its lowest branches, giving the trunk an odd silhouette. The early sun cast long shadows from the scarped dunes; they shortened while I was painting.
That afternoon I revisited St. George Island to see how the living shoreline looked with the sun shining, but when I got there, smoke from a distant fire was filtering the sunlight. I returned to Cape San Blas for cocktails and dinner with my hosts and their friends.
St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge
On my last morning there, I took a walking tour on St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. I had registered for it on the Friends of SVNWR website a month prior. 30 people came across Indian Pass on the shuttle in 5 trips. We divided into several groups for the tour. The path we took skirted the protected bird-nesting area, winding up on the Gulf side of the island tip. The beach was flat where until Hurricane Michael, the guide told us, tall, 800-year-old dunes had protected the island. We walked inland over the 26’-elevation highest point and down to the old dirt logging roads. 70% of the island was inundated during the storm by a surge and waves of 13′. Most of the wildlife survived the storm, including the native deer, the exotic Sambar deer, and the recently introduced red wolf mates and their two pups. We saw lots of tracks showing the recent activity of deer, wild boars, and even the wolves. Happy birds filled the forest with the sounds of spring. It was a beautiful hike through natural Florida, slash pines mixed with swamps and palms, and wildflowers everywhere. I highly recommend it. Remember to bring mosquito repellent.
The Next Part of the Artist Residency
This week I have been reviewing my photos and thinking about what I would like to paint en plein air when I return for the second half of my residency next week. Wednesday, April 3, will be “Field Day”, when people can come watch or even paint along with me, and we will meet at the end of the day for show-and-tell and wine at Scallop Republic. I chose the breach in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park for the area I would like to paint on that day. I’d like to try two or three paintings. Registration for attendees is at https://forgottencoastculturalcoalition.wildapricot.org/event-3330246.
On Thursday of this week I will paint half a day, and the other half day I will take a class on Oyster Ecology at ANERR, where I hope to learn how Hurricane Michael affected the oyster industry in the imperiled Apalachicola Bay, and how it is recovering. On Friday I will paint and later that afternoon I will prepare to give a presentation to the Board of the Forgotten Coast Cultural Coalition which is funding this residency. The public is invited. My presentation will be at 6:30 Eastern Time at The Joe Center for the Arts, 201 Reid Avenue, Port St. Joe, FL 32456. After that I will have a month to refine my plein air paintings and to also produce studio works for the theme.
The Exhibit of My Residency Paintings
My residency work will be displayed at the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air May 3-May 12, 2019. For the first part of the event, the exhibit will be at Cal Allen’s Gallery at 109 Avenue B South, Carrabelle, FL 32322. I will give a presentation at the FCenPA reception there on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, at 6:30 pm. On Friday, May 10, 2019, my paintings will be moved to hang at the Fort Coombs Armory at the corner of 4th Street and Avenue D in Apalachicola, FL, for the Maecenas Dinner that evening and for the final day of the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air and the Collector’s Gala. Click HERE for the event schedule.
Stay tuned for my next blog post, “Forgotten Coast en Plein Air 2019: Florida’s Finest Ambassador and Artist-in-Residence, Part 3!”
Florida’s Finest Ambassador and Artist-in-Residence
Every year the Forgotten Coast Cultural Coalition hosts a plein air painting event, inviting twenty professional artists to paint the area of Northwest Florida known as the Forgotten Coast. It includes the communities of Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, Cape San Blas, Indian Pass, Apalachicola, Eastpoint, St. George Island, and Carrabelle. On October 10, 2018, the Forgotten Coast was hit hard by Hurricane Michael. The City of Mexico Beach was decimated, and the surrounding communities also were heavily impacted. The theme for this year’s annual Forgotten Coast en Plein Air event will focus on the natural environment as it recovers from the impact of the Hurricane.
Florida’s Finest Ambassador
I am happy that for the second time I have been selected to be a Florida’s Finest en Plein Air Ambassador for the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air event. Every year, four to six Florida artists are selected for this honor. I also served as an Ambassador in 2016, so I know it to be a big job, some of the hardest work but also some of the most rewarding work I have ever done. It involves mentoring artists new to plein air, one-to-one, in two hour sessions, 3 sessions a day with a different artist each session, working with 15 artists over 5 days. The program is underwritten by Duke Energy, with all tools and materials supplied.
In the past, participating painters have been charged only $25 for what I would estimate is a $200 private lesson when you count supplies and equipment plus the compensation and housing provided to the Ambassadors. Watch the event website for the opening of registration for the “Painting Stations”: https://forgottencoastculturalcoalition.wildapricot.org.
I also am honored and deeply humbled to be invited to do the artist residency for the event. Residencies traditionally have been offered only to an invited professional artist, and not to Ambassadors. Being an artist-in-residence for the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air means that I will be housed there for a week this spring, to observe, learn, and paint scenes relating to the event theme focusing on the natural environment as it recovers from the impact of Hurricane Michael. In particular, I will be looking at mitigation efforts including the installation of living shorelines, planting sea oats, erecting sand fences, mitigating the combustible fuel overload in the forests, and restoring the longleaf pines.
I will be observing the work of the Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast which is managed by Franklin’s Promise Coalition. For background knowledge, I also have scheduled a walking tour on St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, and I will take two workshops from the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, one on Oyster Ecology, and the other one a Bay Estuary class.
My residency is split into two parts. The first four days are this-coming week, and the last 3 days are in the first week of April. I will be observing, sketching, and painting en plein air, and in the month following, I will be refining some of my plein air works and also producing some studio works from my observations. If you are interested in painting with me, or observing, the Artist’s Field Day will be all day Wednesday April 3, 2019. At the end of the bring-your-own-lunch day will be an informal critique and wine. (!!!) Contact Cheryl at email@example.com for details. In early May I will present my residency work at the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air event, at a reception at Cal Allen Gallery in Carrabelle, FL, Tuesday May 7 at 6:30 pm Eastern Time.
On Monday of last week I drove over to Cape San Blas and St. George Island to take a look at some of the areas I have painted. Driving through Mexico Beach is still such a shock, even though a great deal of the storm mess and destruction has been swept clean. Seeing blocks and blocks of land where homes used to be, is something I can’t get used to. I drove on to Port St. Joe, to Salinas Park which is on the way to Cape San Blas. The marsh on the Bay side looks healthy, but the Gulf side of the park surprised me, a big cut coming all the way from the Gulf to the parking area at the southernmost boardwalk.
The inlet to the cut had filled in, leaving a large tide pool, and the county had bulldozed sand to form two dune-like mounds to restore the geography. The concrete floor of the pavilion next to that boardwalk was sloped and askew where the current of the storm surge had eroded the dirt from beneath it. A truckload of inmates were clearing debris from the park. I was disturbed to see green branches on the ground where still living pine trees had been removed along with the dead, but I confess I have no knowledge of how soon the living trees will die anyway because of saltwater inundation.
The rock-hardened curve of the road on the Cape was one lane, repairs and reinforcement being done. That road certainly would have been completely washed away if it hadn’t had a barrier of big rocks 5′ high. I saw some of those boulders washed all the way across the road, resting in the marsh.
Inside T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, everything looked pretty typical for a barrier island hit by a storm, the foliage wind-burned and some pine trees snapped in half, until I got to the first beachfront boardwalk and restroom just past Eagle Harbor. There ahead was the 1000-yard breach in the peninsula, where the Gulf of Mexico washed through to St. Joseph Bay. I parked and walked out on the large sandy area bordering the south side of the channel. It is an awe-inspiring sight, imagining the power of the storm to move that much sand. I have been told that Mother Nature is filling in the channel already, that it was 35 feet deep when the breach first happened, and that now you can wade across at low-tide, though that is not advised because of the dangerous currents.
The island part of the park is still closed, dangerous with storm debris, broken buildings, exposed utilities and what-not. On the opposite shore from me was an oddity: a tree that had been buried in the dune was completely exposed, the branches balanced on top of a massive tap-root still holding it erect. Who knows how old that tree was. I expect it will provide stability for the new dune when one forms there. I returned following the eroded face of the dunes, past a second place where you could see how the dune eroded into the start of another cut, which would have further widened the breach but instead left a large tide pool. The sand is already collecting in front of the dunes and on the sea oats that are already growing up from their rhizomes deep under the wind-swept beach.
Below are images of a couple of scenes I painted last spring in 2018, and at right, the site where I was standing when I painted them, now a wide breach in St. Joseph Peninsula.
You can learn more about the damages in the state park in this article.
I drove over to the recently reopened St. George Island State Park, and found the scene of another one of my paintings, the massive dune I had painted no longer there, the beach scoured flat. A park ranger, Assistant Manager Lance Kelly, was very gracious in taking time to talk to me about their efforts to re-open the park. He said Hurricane Michael was so strong that a good deal of the dunes blew over to the other side of St. George Island, actually widening the island a bit. He told me how resilient the sea oats are, sending up new leaves even after being uprooted by the storm, run over by bulldozers, and plowed into the long hills of sand the rangers put between the road and the beach to encourage the start of new dunes.
Below is a scene I painted there on SGI last spring in 2018, and at right, the vast emptiness now where that massive dune used to stand.
On my way back off St. George Island, I stopped at East Hole (ANERR Unit 4), and walked out to the Apalachicola Bay shoreline, where I found bordering the marsh a wide stretch of new sand about a foot deep, tossed up onto the shore by the wave action in the Bay. No doubt this was some of the gulf front dune sand the ranger had been talking about. A pair of blue herons were fishing a short distance from me, signaling spring nesting coming soon, continuing the cycle of life on the barrier island.
This is the first of a five-part series on my experiences as a Florida’s Finest Ambassador and an Artist-in-Residence for the 2019 Forgotten Coast en Plein Air.
This week, January 24-27, 2019, the city of DeFuniak Springs in Northwest Florida will again host the Florida Chautauqua Assembly, a 4-day educational program which this year is themed “A Journey Into Main Street America”. Displays and exhibits will surround the the nearly circular spring-fed lake in the center of town, and presentations will be given at local churches and at Northwest Florida State College Chautauqua Center. I am a member of the volunteer faculty, tasked with giving a presentation on the subject of plein air painting.
Titled An Affair with Plein Air – Painting from the Outside In, my session description states “the practice of painting scenes from life, outdoors, is the biggest art movement in history, and it is happening now! Accomplished artists find that painting outdoors, in the changing light and under changing weather conditions, rapidly improves their perception and artistic decision-making, and this carries over to their studio-practice. Beginners and non-artists find increased levels of present-moment-awareness, satisfaction and serenity akin to the benefits of meditation.
Groups of plein air painters are springing up everywhere, providing support and encouragement for like-minded brave souls. Who knows, maybe you too will be a plein air painter!” My presentation includes a film by Plein Air Magazine and a sharing of samples of Chautauqua scenes painted by local plein air artists during the event. I will deliver it on Saturday, January 26, 2019, from 3:30 to 4:45 at First United Methodist Church, 88 Circle Drive (click for map sketch). The $10 ticket may be purchased at St. Agatha’s which is a block south of the UMC church. Ticket sales support the expenses of the organization.
Dr. Steven Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach, rates the best beaches in the world every year, using 50 criteria. Grayton Beach, Florida, has been Number One at least once and in the top ten several times. That would be no surprise to anyone who has seen this beach. The reflective white quartz sand consists of small grains with a texture as smooth as sugar, so fine that it crunches and squeaks underfoot like very cold snow. Under the blue sea of the Gulf of Mexico, the white sand bottom reflects turquoise, punctuated by an emerald streak where the sand bar offshore rises to within 10′ of the surface. On days like last Wednesday, you would never know that those same waters could house the fury of a hurricane, like the one last month that destroyed most of Panama City, Mexico Beach, and Port St. Joe, the destruction starting a mere 20 miles east of Grayton Beach. Continue reading Plein Air on the World’s Most Beautiful Beach
This post will have to be more pictures than writing — everything has been moving so fast I haven’t taken enough time to reflect on it all! First, of course, the effects of Hurricane Michael are still heavy upon my neighboring communities, along the coastal towns from Panama City to St. George Island and further, and all points north of there. The fundraiser started by Larry Moore and managed by Denise Rose and team, “Operation Fundstorm”, begun with the hope of raising a mere $10,000, actually raised over $117,000! More than 200 artists donated paintings which then were auctioned online over the course of one week, with 100% of the proceeds going to provide hurricane relief on the Forgotten Coast. I am thrilled to have been a contributing artist, with “Seeing the Light”, at left.
The first week of November, I hung 20 of my paintings at Artful Things in Niceville, FL, where they will be exhibited through December 2018. That same week I also was juried into the Foster Gallery at the Ruskin Place Artist Colony, in Seaside, FL. I have 14 works showing there, through the first week of February. The Foster at Ruskin is the second branch of the Foster Gallery, an artist collective organized by the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County. Upcoming dates are:
Friday, December 7th, The Foster Gallery at Ruskin Place Artist Colony, 201 Ruskin Pl., Seaside, FL 32459, 1st Friday Art Walk, 5pm – 8pm.
Thursday, December 13th, The Foster Gallery at Ruskin Place Artist Colony, 201 Ruskin Pl., Seaside, FL 32459, Opening Reception, 5pm – 7pm.
Saturday, December 1st, Artful Things, 1087 John Sims Pkwy E, Niceville, FL 32578, Open House , 11am – 4pm.
And finally, I have been invited to again serve as a Florida’s Finest en Plein Air Ambassador for the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air which is based in Port St. Joe. Florida’s Finest Ambassadors teach 15 2-hour one-on-one instructional sessions to people who are new to plein air painting. Those 15 sessions are offered over 5 days, 3 per day. I served as an Ambassador in 2016, so I know the drill — it’s a fairly grueling schedule. Normally 6 artists from across the state are selected to be Ambassadors. Since the area just suffered a hurricane, the event may be scaled back a bit, but I know there will be at least three Ambassadors this year.
My weekly Wednesday painting sessions with my local group have yielded a number of studies over the summer, pictured below.
I spent half of August and half of September on a month-long adventure of travel and plein air painting. Two weeks were in Colorado at the Estes Valley Plein Air event where I painted almost every day in beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park near the town of Estes Park, Colorado. And one week was in the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains, near Blue Ridge, Georgia. I completed 11 paintings.
It was an honor to be juried into the Estes Valley Plein Air event, which was sponsored by the Art Center of Estes Park, and managed by the very capable team of Lars and Kristi. I opted to drive, instead of fly, from Florida to Colorado to reduce expenses. I had a cabin to stay in while I was there, thanks to the generosity of my friend Dr. Cynthia Reedy, but while traveling to and from, I tent-camped. I used love being in the great outdoors, “roughing it”. By camping and driving, I saved a $500 flight and a $900+ car rental and probably at least $500 in motels. I also saved the trouble and expense of shipping my frames and canvases and tools and equipment. I did buy new tires before I left, which I paid for by instructing a course for the employees of the business I had recently sold. Even so, except for the fact that I have family in Colorado, traveling this distance for an event is worthwhile as a business venture only if sales are generated.
The mountains of Colorado were very smoky the first week, from the bad forest fires further west. The smoke washed out mid-distant and distant colors. The second week the winds blew the smoke down to Denver, clearing the skies in the high country, but the winds also made it very difficult to work with an easel. I adapted as best I could, at one point even clamping my canvas to the bottom of my tripod, with my palette on the ground. There were other challenges. It threatened to rain most afternoons, and a few times it poured.
My days began by waking up in the dark, packing my lunch snack, and driving the slow trip up the 9 miles of one-way gravel switchbacks of Old Fall River Road, to get up to Mile 8 where I could pull off and hike out a short distance to my view of the entire glacial cirque just below the Alpine Visitors Center. I had wanted to paint this view since seeing it anew the previous year when I went to Estes Park for a pain ting workshop with Morgan Samuel Price. Some days it was far too windy and cold or too gray to paint plein air. I think I made the hour-long drive 7 days but was able to work on this painting only 3 mornings. I wanted to capture the grandeur of the morning vista.
The barometric pressure high altitude is much much lower than at my sea level home where it is usually around 30 inHg. A barometer at the Visitors Center displayed 19.28 inHg. I did suffer a mild case of altitude sickness the first few days I drove to the top, mainly a headache and just generally feeling unwell. After the third time, I wasn’t bothered anymore. The area of the glacial cirque was chilly. The air temperature decreases 3.6° for every 1000′ increase in elevation, and the Visitors Center sits more than 4000 feet higher than the city of Estes Park. In addition, it was almost always windy, or at least gusty, which increased the chill considerably. But when I am painting en plein air, my focus becomes so intense I often lose track of discomforts. A few hours into my painting up there on the first day that I painted, I noticed a small marmot out of the corner of my eye, and turned around; there were four marmot pups busy running and grubbing near me, one almost at my feet! I guess if you stay quiet in one place for long enough, they think you are part of the landscape! I’ve posted longer videos on Facebook — here’s a shorter one:
My sisters and brothers-in-law rented a condo above Estes Park the first weekend I was there. Trudy and Steve came up from their home in Westminster and Sherrie and Mark from Greeley, and one of their daughters, Caitlin, came up from her home in Cheyenne. I think their chief entertainment is creating irresistible, delectable foods, and this weekend was no exception. I have no idea how they stay so fit. We hiked up to Gem Lake from Lumpy Ridge, my mentor and friend Morgan Samuel Price joining us. Morgan was there to teach a workshop, which I had taken the year before. I of course could hardly breathe at that altitude but after the 2-mile climb, was it ever worth it when we finally reached our destination. Below, a photo of Gem Lake.
The artists of Estes Valley Plein Air were invited to paint a nocturne or a painting in town, in Estes Park, and I opted for the nocturne. I started when the sun went down, about 8:30, and finished close to 11 PM. Meanwhile the temperature dropped, quickly. I was dressed in light jeans and a fleece sweatshirt. As I said before, I don’t notice discomforts while I am painting, but I certainly noticed that I was shivering towards the end. I couldn’t feel my fingertips when I put my gear away. I couldn’t believe it when I got in my car — the display said it was 46°! No wonder it felt a little chilly. Coming from the humid deep south, the dry Colorado air felt cold, but not that cold! If it had been Northwest Florida, I would have quit after just 30 minutes!
Another special category was a sweet little park called Mrs. Walsh’s Garden. It had a meandering path, a pond and small waterfall, and lots of hummingbirds. Even Peter Cottontail came hopping up to within 10′ of me, becoming a statue when he saw me, and then fleeing fast as lightning. The hummingbirds thought my bright shirt was a flower. Here’s a video of a hummingbird taking a bath on the rock beside the waterfall:
I enjoyed painting the gentian flowers in “Mrs. Walsh’s Gentian Visitor,” one of the few times I have used color straight out of the tube, as intense as it could be. I may accent the hummingbird a little more when the painting returns to me from the exhibit at the Art Center of Estes Park. I think people don’t notice it unless I tell them to look for it.
One day I hunted high and low for a location where I would be sheltered from the high winds and finally decided to deploy my Under The Weather Pod for the first time. I staked down the two back corners of the floor, and tied the top two back corners to the tree behind me. This allowed me to set up my easel and paint without freezing to death or getting bowled over by the wind. I still had to be on guard for the twisting gusts, but I managed to complete a painting beside Big Thompson Creek in Moraine Park, below.
We were asked to frame a reserve painting so the Art Center would have something to fill the space if a painting sold. My reserve painting is “Where Are The Sheep?”, expressing my frustration that no bighorn sheep ever came down to Sheep Lakes in the Fall River Valley the whole time I was there! A herd of elk grazed in the distance one morning, but nary a single sheep! Nevertheless, the colors were beautiful in the early morning.
I also participated in the Quickdraw in Estes Park, which was held in the same area where I had done my nocturne. I am pleased to report that mine sold in the very entertaining auction held immediately after the awards were announced. We only had 90 minutes to complete our painting, which was the fastest I had ever had to painting, at least until Blue Ridge two weeks later!!
The next time I drive across the country, I am going to take an extra day or two to see the sights along the way. I went past Amarillo, where just 30 minutes south is the Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the United States. I was on a timeline, so I drove past, both going and coming back. On the return trip, I was heading to Blue Ridge, Georgia, to meet up with my painting buddies from home. We were all going to paint in the Blue Ridge Mountains Arts Association Paint-Out. We stayed in Young Harris, GA, at the mountain home of John and Theresia McInnis. Theresia is an accomplished watercolorist and hostess extraordinaire. Elia Saxer, Beckie Hart, Brady DeGrasse, and Charlotte Arnold came up to paint as well, and we had a wonderful time painting, eating, and socializing. And I am happy to report that one of my paintings, Stanley Rapids, was awarded third place in the BRMAA Wet Room!
Stanley Rapids, 10×20 oils on canvas panel, painted en plein air.
I also painted the terraced waterfalls of the creek running through Taccoa Valley Campground. My sensations while painting were the roar of the Taccoa River behind me, campfire smoke in the air, light filtering through the trees and glittering in the waterfalls, children playing, soft leaves underfoot.
Toccoa Valley Campground, 15 x 30 oils on canvas panel
On the last day I looked up a stand-up paddleboarding friend who lives in Blue Ridge, and painted some of the critters on his farm.
I learned a lot about my ability to organize for a trip like this, and for next time, what to bring and what to leave at home. Certainly I could have ordered my frames to be shipped to Estes Park so that I wouldn’t have had to carry them in my car — that would have lightened my load and improved my gas mileage a little. That also would have allowed me to sleep in my car instead of my tent on the one night that rain threatened. I doubt I will reduce the amount of oil painting supplies I bring, but I probably will leave my gouache set and my watercolors at home if I do this trip again. The thing is, you just never know when you might want to do a study, and I want all options available, even though I always make my paintings using oils. I was surprised to find that I needed my back-up easel and clamps that I had brought in case I broke mine. My panel holder broke one day – a screw became stripped, so I was very happy to have an alternate way to hold my painting, but the main reason I used it was to hold my sign advertising the Art Center of Estes Park where the paintings were to be exhibited. Up in the high country it was too windy to try to clamp the sign to my easel.
I met many of the other artists both locations, and am sure I will run into many of them again. I remain a little intimidated — some have been painting for 20 or 30 years or more, all during the time that I was in my business career. But all were very friendly, and the icing on the cake in Colorado was to meet up with and paint with my college friend Daniel Sprick, who came up from Denver for the Q&A after the showing of a PBS documentary on his development as an artist, put on by the Estes Park Art Museum. Dan is a recognized contemporary master painter, and he will be the keynote speaker at the Figurative Arts Convention in Miami next month.
By all means, take a picture with your camera!
With today’s technology, we are taking photos every day, and some of them are really good. But why isn’t that enough for the plein air painter? Why not just paint from the photograph? I’ll try to answer that.
First of all, even the best cameras don’t pick up the values and colors exactly right. That’s why every good photographer is an artist, both with their composition of the scene and with their use of photo-editing software afterwards. But certainly we can do many of the things in the studio that we do en plein air, can’t we? Like re-composing, and leaving certain things out, or moving a tree a smidge to the left in order to provide contrast behind the focal area? Well yes, except that we are working with changing light, so we also have to make a lot of decisions on the spot, and try to mix colors right the first time.
But here’s a big difference. Imagine yourself driving down the highway, seeing some pretty scenery, and stopping to take a picture. Years later, or even days later, maybe even hours later, you are looking back at your photos, and you wonder what it was that made you snap that photo, what it was that caught your eye, why it was significant, why it impressed you enough to stop the car.
Now instead imagine yourself somewhere away from home, enjoying the sunset, shooting a photo now and then as the sunset progresses, listening to the soft rush of the waves coming in to the shore, and the call of seagulls and banter of children playing, with the smell of someone’s barbecue wafting over your beach chair, knowing your friends are up in the vacation house having drinks and telling stories. The sand is gritty between your toes, there is a pesky fly that wants to bite you, and the bottoms of your pant legs are sticking to your skin from getting wet because you walked out to return to the sea a flipping baitfish that had stranded itself on the sand. The key element here is the time it takes to absorb all of those sensations, so that depending on your present-moment awareness, a unique memory can be imprinted, so rich that years from now you might recall the scent of barbecue and the feel of the ocean breeze on your skin and the pleasure of rejoining your friends afterwards, when you look at the one or two photos of that sunset that you decided to keep.
In much the same way, a plein air painter experiences their environment for an extended period of time while painting, and that is the reason not to just settle for a photo. The time invested in the experience allows for the absorption of volumes of sensory information, some of which inevitably will make its way into the painting, whether intentionally or not. If you’ve ever marveled at the difference between seeing a good photo of a painting, and seeing the same painting in person, you know exactly what I am talking about. The painting itself contains an energy that came from the experience of the artist. I remember that tears came to my eyes, I was so overwhelmed when I saw “Starry Night” in person, even though I had stared at photos of the painting many times. It’s like the difference between reading Maya Angelou’s poetry, or listening to Maya Angelou herself reading it to you. She lived it.
It’s interesting when someone compliments an artist by saying a painting looks like a photograph. If it is a photograph of the painting, that might be an apt compliment indeed. But if they see the painting in person, hopefully they will feel the solid mass of rock underfoot and hear the call of the loon in the distance, and her mate answering, and they will know that a photograph could never give the same sense that the painting does. Well, except of course when it is a photograph by a really good photographer – I feel the crunch of the glacier moving and I sense a coyote looking at me, when I look at Ansel Adams’ photos.
So last week I painted through a rainstorm. To be honest, when it started to sprinkle and I went to the car to get my big, wide, painting umbrella, the weather App on my phone said the rain was going to diminish after a bit, not get worse, and by the time I finally figured out that the App was wrong, all of my gear was soaked, and I found myself wondering, why don’t I just take a picture? Thankfully, Florida’s summer rains are not too chilly, because the umbrella only shielded me from most of the rain. I posted a video of the misadventure on my personal Facebook page, 6/13/18, gum-chomping and all..
Here’s the end result, “After The Downpour” – sorry you have to view it as a photo. Even so, I will guarantee you that I would not have gotten this effect if I had just shot a photo and then painted it in the studio. Interestingly, even as I am writing this, my friend Janice Frossard just commented on Facebook about the painting that I blogged about yesterday, Devil’s Backbone First Light: “You can almost smell the sage brush and feel the cool morning air.” That’s what I’m talking about!
In this painting, can you smell the rain?
After the Downpour, 11×14 oils on canvas panel, en plein air
Last week I completed a painting of the early morning light on part of the hogback [rock formation running along the front range of the Colorado Rockies] at Devil’s Backbone Open Space at Loveland, Colorado, a Larimer County Natural Resources Park. I blogged about painting en plein air there 6 weeks ago, “A Quick Trip to Colorado, Paints in Hand“.
I am a believer in painting only what you experience. There is the occasional commissioned painting of someone’s scene from their own photo, or their dog or child, but I feel more strongly about the scene if I actually was there and I think that I make a better painting when I have a memory or feelings about the scene.
This certainly was true with Devil’s Backbone First Light. I blogged about looking one whole morning for the part of the hogback formation that I had remembered from my childhood, and about going the next day to Loveland to another part of the hogback with my sister and brother-in-law to hike, and then hiking it myself with my paints the following day while the sun was coming up, painting all morning, and hiking the trails again that afternoon with both sisters and their husbands and a couple of the grandkids. I was filled with powerful memories of the scene, made more significant by spending time with family there, and I had my 3 plein air studies, and my iPhotos. Only my memory held the actual lighting I wanted to portray — the photos were much less colorful than I remembered or than my plein air paintings indicated, but they provided better value comparisons and better perspective. My plein air works provided truer color, and the time spent painting en plein air imprinted certain details on my memory. If I had merely photographed the rocks, and not painted en plein air, I would not have remembered the yellow-green of the lichen and the pinks and lavenders of the sagebrush, and the tufts of grass growing between the rocks on top of the hogback.
I was thrilled to realize just how much the process had helped to make the painting. Below is Devil’s Backbone First Light, followed by the three studies I painted en plein air.
I attended the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air and Plein Air South again this May, taking time out for painting between demo’s and discussions. I practice painting en plein air to study the transient effects of light, to become more adept at composing, to learn more effective technique, and to develop a stronger instinct for decision-making. Many times a plein air painting will be worthy of framing. All are learning experiences. My intention is to study something different every time I paint, even when I paint a scene I have painted before. Every painting is making it easier to paint the next painting, but I challenge myself even more the next time, so I can’t say that painting is easy. I can say that I am seeing better. Continue reading The Forgotten Coast en Plein Air and Plein Air South 2018