What a way to experience a national park. Doing “plein air” painting in wonderful natural settings is just an incredible way to really soak in the essence of a place. I just finished 3 weeks as Artist In Residence at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), and it feels as if it has been burned into my memory. Staring intently at a scene for hours, deconstructing it in your mind and reconstructing it in paint is a good way to make a pretty firm visual memory of a place. I also experience and visualize places through photography, but it is just not as complete a way to incorporate a place into yourself as painting can be.
We were provided an old farm house as housing, and were quite comfortable. My normal way to experience a national park is by camping. That can be a lot of fun, but there is a lot to be said for a kitchen, a shower and a bed at the end of a long trail. Maybe it’s because I’m edging toward the far end of my fifth decade that the ground just isn’t as comfortable as it used to be. Maybe it’s the modern conveniences in the kitchen. Anyway, this trip might have spoiled me. I’ll be applying to more parks.
Being comfortable, well fed and well rested probably boosted my endurance. I’m usually ready to head for the barn after a week or two in a tent, but I gladly spent the entire 3 weeks painting happily on a trail somewhere in the park. It was just idyllic. The park staff kindly provided perfect weather, and everywhere we looked there were paintings waiting to be done. The commute to work every day began in the car, but quickly switched to trail or kayak. Traffic was generally light. Typically, I’d find a spot and sit down to paint while Pat took off on a trail. She covered over a hundred miles during my 3 weeks of painting. After Labor Day, we saw so few people out in the park on trails or beaches that it began to feel like our own private park. It’s true that I normally pick out of the way spots so as to avoid people while I work. It is not so much that I am annoyed by people talking to me, but it is an interruption of limited time. When people do talk to me, I often continue working, which might appear rude to some. Painting in spots that keep me isolated allows me to concentrate more fully, and remain “in the zone” if there is one for painters. The one disadvantage of working in isolated spots is the increased chance of surprise wildlife encounters. Having a bear look over my shoulder while I’m working would be a bit disconcerting, although my usual encounters are more benign and welcome (not that I don’t like bears). I’ve been visited by otters, eagles, deer and other fascinating creatures. Sitting quietly in one spot is a great way to see wildlife, as many hunters will tell you. After a long day in the wilds and after supper, we’d head back out for an evening on the beach watching the sunset, or listening to the coyotes and wolves singing at the rising moon. When the moon waned and disappeared from the evening sky, we could see the Milky Way in its full glory, and even our nearest galactic neighbor the Andromeda Galaxy, visible without a telescope (2.8 million light years away!). It was a hard job, but…
The results of my artistic efforts were mixed. I was pretty happy with about half of the 12 paintings I produced in the 19 days of work. Paintings of stones, a successful studio series inspired by Pictured Rocks, were not so successful as plein air paintings. I did better with landscapes and water.
On September 23, I gave a program to the public and park volunteers. I displayed the paintings I had finished during my stay, and lost my best efforts to sales and a donation to the park. This is the eternal curse of the artist; having to repeatedly sell your favorite children to make a living.
I had one scratchboard drawing, “New Guinea Crocodile,” in this year’s “Art and the Animal,” the annual show of the Society of Animal Artists (scroll down to “Shows This Summer” for an image). I was honored with the “Patricia A. Bott Award for Creative Excellence.” Thank you, SAA judges!
I seem to be doing well with scratchboard drawings (this is my second award from SAA for a scratchboard). Perhaps the competition is thin in scratchboard because few people have the patience for extreme tedium, uh, I mean detail.