Thursday, February 13, 2014

Wake Up and Paint - A Morning of Plein Air Painting

         Greetings! I don't suppose anyone has really noticed that I haven't posted in months…but I'm back at it!  My big focus this year is another project with Idaho Conservation League - this year I am their first Artist in Residence, which means I'm putting together a body of work to exhibit later in the year. I will have three regional shows this year - Sandpoint in August, Ketchum (Sun Valley) in September, and Boise in November. The piece below was written as a guest blogger for Idaho Conservation League, describing a day of Plein Air painting in the Pahsimeroi Range of Idaho. It was very satisfying to put words to the experience I have when painting outdoors - an entirely different animal from cozy studio painting. Click here to view the original blog posting on ICL's website. Enjoy!

The Pahsimeroi Valley, October 2012

        The sun rises late on a fall morning below Mount Leatherman in the Pahsimeroi Range. I wake up snuggly warm in my frost-covered sleeping bag after a night perched on the back of a pickup bed under the piercing stars and black sky. Sean, my trusty tour guide, rises and makes a pot of matte on the camp stove as I stay curled up in my warm nest and pull out my painting box and canvas. I hurry to establish the contrast of the dark canyon walls with the shining sky and sun-bathed valley beyond with charcoal before the light changes or my fingers freeze. This is the essence of day’s first painting - subtle variances of color within the shadowed canyon and deeply glowing alizarin crimson willows, and the brilliant morning sun theatrically up-lighting the wider valley beyond. I alternate left and right hands, warming one inside my sleeping bag while the other works. This morning epitomizes the thrill and challenge of working on site – subject to the elements, hastened by the rapid changing of the light. As I apply color with my oil paints, I am grateful for what I’ve learned from studying Vermeer’s paintings of dark, emerald-toned interior spaces and portraits – there is always color within even the darkest dark. This shadowed canyon is much like one of the rooms in his works – rich and velvety even in the darks, gloom avoided by the startling ray of light entering through a window.

Pahsimeroi Valley Morning, 18"x24"

        Both sides of the steep canyon walls are still untouched by the newly-risen sun, save the tiniest tip of rock lit by a filtered ray. For my second painting, I will zoom in to accommodate the square format of the canvas. The jagged, dramatic downward slope of the cliff bisects the composition diagonally. The willows have added color to their alizarin hue – now a cadmium orange glows like embers from what bits of sunlight infiltrate the valley. The soft, fluffy contours of the willows in the creek bed are a stark contrast to the sharp sawtooth rock edges, and towards the center of the composition they yield to a meandering, sky-blue stream. The co-existence of harshness and gentleness is what I have come to see as the defining and sometimes painful beauty of Idaho landscapes – whether it’s a delicate pink flower in the seemingly barren Owyhee Canyonlands, or these jovial, fluffy willows bouncing along their streambed towards an imposing valley. It is getting a little warmer, and I know that soon the sun will surpass the jagged horizon of the peaks to flood the entire valley floor.

Pahsimeroi Dawn, 18"x18"


 1pm –  I can’t get enough of the willows and serpentine ribbon of water slithering through the valley floor. Now in full midday light, it’s a festival of oranges, verdant yellow-greens, purples, and sage blue. Or is it sage green? The ambiguity is obvious the first time one tries to mix the color of this fragrant, beloved bush. I allow my red underpainting to work for me, defining the edges of the willows and peaking through as a contrasting color amongst the field of sage. The sun is warm on my skin and I peel off one of my many layers of clothing. There is no rush for this painting – the midday sun stays consistent the longest, and this painting is about color and form more than contrast of lights and darks. Taking my time, I enjoy the buttery quality of the paint and let my hands and eyes collaborate, free of my mind’s control. I feel the exuberant thrill and relief that comes with completing a Plein Air painting – a feeling of having seized a moment in time and sealing an experience of a landscape in my memory forever.

Pahsimeroi Willows, 18"x18"


              Later that day...


  1. I just saw your paintings at Evermore Gallery and they are wonderful!
    I would love to know more about your mediums to make your paintings so lush and shiny,but if you'd rather not divulge those I won't pry.
    I will keep a lookout for your work!

    Frank Walsh

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