Adventures in the "Plain Air!" (part 1)What better topic for my first official BLOG post!
When I venture outside to paint (rather infrequently, unless it's my own backyard) people always come and say the usual things, like "is that there that whatchacallit - er...plain air painting?" or "I can't even draw a straight line!" or "it's beeeeoooootiful!" even if I have only slopped out a nondescript drippy wash or a couple of brush strokes.
Once a famous PBS television painter of Michigan lighthouses shared a secret with me for keeping pesky bystanders away...he grabbed his giant four inch wash brush and with large swinging motions of his arm, he sent big loops of colored water through the air for five feet around him. He said he does it to get the extra water out of his brush, but there are side benefits if you know what I mean! I only use this technique on scary looking dogs!
People always inquire if I paint "pleine air." This got me thinking, hmmmm, why don't I paint outside more often? Because I love painting in my studio, with oodles of north light, a cup of green tea, some medieval music, and the company of two funny black and white cats, Siui and Quinivere. When I contemplated this question I realized that every time I had taken easels, paints, paper, buckets, water, sunscreen, bug spray, etc. in hand and headed out into the northern Michigan landscape, it was an adventure or a memorable experience which sometimes meant more to me than the resulting
piece of art.
I think a lot of painters take themselves pretty seriously about their "pleine airiness." It's a big and sometimes snooty thing with the local art scene around here in this touristy town! I was teasing a local painter who was remarking about how much trash and litter he sees on the highways and driveways and ditches he paints in. He exclaimed that he never throws away anything that isn't biodegradable or edible, like a banana peel or an orange rind. I acted shocked and told him he should never ever throw away a banana peel, as the white-tailed deer have been known to slip on them and break their legs. His jaw dropped. He actually thought I was being serious! Too many paint fumes, I guess.
My first serious outdoor painting session took place in my first year of college. My professor had us meet at a local marina. I attempted to paint a yacht. What an awful painting as I look at it now! Bad perspective and I must have used cheap low grade paints and the dreaded, buckly student grade watercolor paper. How shocking - was there actually weeds growing on the pier back then? Seeing this awful attempt reminds me how much I have improved since then! Well along comes the ship's captain (a colorful character sporting one of those cap'n hats!) He was exclaiming how "beeooootiful" it was and how he wanted to buy it for the boat owner. He was handing me a twenty when who marches over but my instructor who informs my would be art buyer with a wag of his finger, that he cannot buy the "painting" from me because I need it for my final student portfolio! It's funny now but it really wasn't funny at the time. I could have used that twenty to buy some better paper! A couple of years ago asked my professor (who was the best art instructor ever) if he remembered that incident. He didn't recall, apologized and mumbled something about how when you get older you do quite a bit of remembering and regretting! Then I regretted even mentioning it.
Adventures in the "Plain Air!" (part 2)
I had a friend who would venture out and paint with me when I was in college. This was before all this "en plein air" stuff was even heard of around here. We had a bad fright when a bull charged us through a brushy meadow. There was an electric fence wire there, but we didn't want to stick around and see what would happen! The massive cotton wood trees are still there and whenever I pass them, I remember that warm and sunny. lazy summer day. When I look at the sketches I just remember how fun it was to drive around with my friend, and feel so cool because we were "artists."
Bike 'n paint
A friend of mine and I used to load up our backpacks with food and art supplies and set out on our mountain bikes to do a bit of painting. I remember riding the decrepit, sandy and narrow rail road track west of town which is now paved over and part of the Little Traverse Wheelway. It lead out to the old Penn Dixie Cement Plant wasteland which is now a resort. We we didn't hang around very long, as a dark storm was coming in off the Lake Michigan. My friend Joey painted an old building, capturing the stormy sky, indigo blue water, wheeling gulls and the rusty maple sugaring shack, which even had a little smokestack pipe sticking out the top. A plein air success if there ever was one! I asked her if I could keep it or even buy it and she refused to let it go.
It was one of those rare sixty degree days in early March, and we needed to get rid of some cabin fever. I took my nine year old and his friend down to the waterfront and grabbed some painting stuff as an afterthought on the way out the door. It was a gorgeous rare warm winter day with mushy snow melting like marshmallows, and what seemed like the whole town coming outside to enjoy the day. I surveyed the scene of the breakwall and the iced-filled harbor and a guy ice fishing. I painted the sky, the pier and the water in between the icebergs. When I brushed the colors out, they magically became the dark inky water and the mint green ice of the bay. I remember thinking "how did I do that?!" Then I added in the ice fisherman sitting on a drywall bucket...he was like frosting on the cake. The painting turned out perfect! I have only a few paintings which I am really excited about and think are fabulous, and this one was to be one of those "keepers!"
While I was in the middle of the painting I asked the kids to get clean water from the car and take the old water back there. They took the bucket of bright green and did a lot of swirling and dumping and Jackson Pollacking on the way. Then I heard laughter coming from the breakwall...they were pointing and bent doubled over with laughter. When they returned I asked what was so funny....they said "There are PILES and PILES of dog doo doo out there!" That must have been before the city put in the dog waste stations everywhere!
Well, I didn't get to keep my painting after all...my husband GAVE it away to one of his customers just because she collected lighthouse paintings. He didn't think I would mind, because after all, I'm always giving away art, yeah right! I want it back. There is something to painting outside...at least I have the memories from that once in a lifetime day.
Adventures in the "Plain Air!" (part 3)
This is a watercolor I painted at Pond Hill Farm. I was drawn to the warm early morning light and how it was shining off the black cow's back, and how the friendly cow followed the flower picker along as she picked bouquets for the market. The lady who purchased the painting said that when she looked at the painting she could feel the warm summer sun, smell the flowers and even hear the crickets chirping!
A couple of summers ago I was invited to an "artists' tea" at a lavender farm. Once again I brought
too much equipment, art supplies, easels, etc. A couple of artist friends were there with their tiny sketchbook journals and microscopic paint palettes for travel painting. They seemed to have some sort of competition going on to see who could pack the lightest. They hauled out their tiny palettes and playing card-sized sketchbooks to see if they could outdo each other. Curiously, the smallest paint palette had little paint half tins set into one of those "curiously strong" tiny metal peppermint tins. They even had retractable brushes and tiny water jugs!
After the paint palette duel, I hauled my stuff over to the gardens to see what would happen.
The bees at the farm are very calm and sweet, as a result of the medicinal effect of the lavender plants. As I settled into the gardens to paint, they would land on my hair, my hands and on the painting. The combination of the meditative buzzing all around me, the warm sun and the awareness of the moment were very relaxing.
After a lovely tea of strawberry preserves, lemon curd, scones, lavender tea and lavender cookies, the host announced that each artist would be standing up and talking about themselves and their artwork (only if they wanted to). I managed to get through the dreaded public speaking, and even snagged a commission referral from another artist!
Plainly, plein air painting seems to be more about the experience: being present, creative inspiration, and letting go of attachment to the end result. The finished artwork will either be successful surprise, or a spark of an idea for another creation!
Drawing with Children (Grownups Allowed!)
I'm so sad that my young summer art students are already heading south....some will start back to school in the middle of August! I know they won't have as much time to draw when they get back into their everyday routines. I try to show them some fun ways to keep drawing. They'll be working on their language skills and their motor skills, but it'll just seem like fun!
1) Print out one sheet each of my images of words (nouns, and adjectives) Have the kids cut out all the nouns and put them into a paper bag, and then cut out the adjectives and put them into another bag. They could even think up their own words and write them down and then put them into the right bags.
2) Explain that the words in the "noun" bag are people, places, things and that the "adjective" bag words are words that describe things.
3) Have the kids reach into each bag and pick out a word (no peeking!) and then read the word combination...for example "rotten carrot," "cranky octopus,"etc.
4) It's time to draw the combination! You can ask them to imagine what that combination would look like, or even make up a story about their drawing.If you keep a little sketchbook journal to draw in with your kids, it's really amusing to look back at it later, and you'll remember what a good time you had drawing together!
If I wasn't an artist...
|Look in my eye and see what I'm dreaming of....|
If I wasn't an artist...I would have been a pastry chef!Someone asked me what I would career path I would have chosen, if I wasn't an artist/illustrator. I love to be creative in the kitchen. From days of old (when I was three) I remember sitting on the counter top as my mother poured cake batter into carefully buttered and floured cake pans. It was mesmerizing to watch the cascading batter folding over and over upon itself. If I was lucky it was a marble cake, and I was allowed to poke and swirl around in it with a knife to create the marbling effect. I made colorful, multi-layered Jello concoctions in hurricane glasses, propping them on edge (and spilling them) in the fridge so the layers would be all zig zaggy.
As a "grownup", I would still try out weird recipes. I had fun with my kids turning dinner rolls into snails and hedgehogs. We sculpted penguin appetizers from black olives and cream cheese, adding little carrot beaks. I don't think anyone ever ate them, either because they were so cute on their cream cheese landscape, or because they were over-handled by little fingers! Who knew that it would take twelve hours to steam an authentic plum pudding for the fifth grader's Victorian Dickens Christmas party? At least I wasn't asked to make the roast goose, complete with head!
I found a recipe for a watermelon cake from an 1800's Michigan farm recipe book. I decided to make the cake for a kid who was up north with another family and was homesick on her birthday. The cake had to be baked in a huge bowl for the round shape, and required twice the ingredients of a regular cake. You were supposed to put red food coloring (or beet juice in the old days) in 3/4 of the cake batter and green food coloring in the remaining batter, then you had to try to slop the green batter towards the sides of the bowl, plop the pink batter in the middle and then sprinkle in a bunch of raisins for the watermelon seeds. I used chocolate chips instead. The thing took at least two hours to even begin to cook through, meanwhile the edges were beginning to turn an alarming brown shade. The top inflated upwards with crater holes. When it was done, complete with green striped frosting, it didn't look much like a watermelon, or even a cake, for that matter. The birthday girl said, "What is that, a mushroom, or UFO or something?" Sigh.
Halloween was always fun. We baked a skeleton cake with flaming eyes and made a watermelon/pineapple/eggplant Halloween monster that would actually squirted Coca Cola! For the adults there were appetizers that looked like eyeballs and fingers, and even a octopus in blood (tomato sauce) appetizer. One lady didn't believe me that her suction cup was real, ate it anyway and spat it out on the lawn. She didn't come back the next year.