I was Artist in Residence at Everglades National Park this January, and although I spent a lot of time doing plein aire paintings, I also shot nearly 3500 photographs. Many or most of these will become references for future paintings, but some are art in their own right. I apply the same composition techniques, the same color balance rules, etc. The big difference is that I have no control over nature. Much of photography is a combination of skill and luck– being in the right place and time with the right intentions. Of course, as painter I have total control, and can change things that I don’t like, but much of my painting is first visualized in the camera. I might find a landscape that lends itself to a well composed photo, sometimes a stage for some creature. I use the scene in a painting only after I have reconfigured it to suit my needs. In this way, photography is a passive art discipline, recording what we find, as opposed to painting, where we create everything from “scratch.”
Sometimes my photos are of something unusual or striking that I find in nature… often these same subjects would look too perfect, too contrived to become a painting. As a photo, we might look at it and say, “How unusual,” but as a painting, we would probably say, “That doesn’t look correct.” We accept photos as a record of reality (not so true anymore), while a painting must portray our expectations of reality.
So, I suppose that my photography and painting are blended in a way. I use the camera as a visualizing tool. I parse the images I see in nature through the viewfinder. I’m also a photo-realist. I don’t copy photos directly, but I need all of that visual information to make the scene accurate. In other words, I’m not making anything up, just rearranging things to suit my imagination and artistic sense. It is all accurate, even if the overall scene came from my imagination. This need for accuracy has its foundations in my career in natural history museums as an exhibit designer, illustrator, modeler and muralist.
I’ve completed my second stint as Artist in Residence, this time in Everglades National Park. What a great place to be in January, especially if you’re from the north. The locals were complaining about how chilly it was down there… but 68° felt pretty nice to me. It was 5° in Cincinnati when I was packing the car for the trip to Florida.
So, three weeks with nothing more serious than, “Where am I going to paint today?” This is a wonderful situation for an artist who normally works in a studio or at home and is constantly interrupted by the daily requirments of business or family. And, in a tropical “paradise” no less.
Now, some folks might not consider the largest swamp in the country to be paradise, with it’s requisite mosquitos, alligators and snakes, but it is for me (except for the mosquitos). I happen to love alligators and snakes, and if you’re familiar with my art you already know that. The Everglades are a unique subtropical habitat, full of life and offering some sublime landscapes to paint and admire.
Because this was the dry and cool season, mosquitos were almost absent, and the temperatures were pleasant (especially compared to home). This would not be the situation in the summer months, when it would be impossible to do plein aire painting in the Glades without some sort of air-conditioned space suit. The mosquitos become so thick in the summer that a person can literally choke on them… this is no exaggeration… and the temperature and humidity hover in the range of 90°/90%. The only place comparable would be the arctic tundra, where the mosquitos get almost as bad in the summer (but not as hot).
However, I was there in the pleasant season. I spent many blissful hours sitting at my easel in very delightful wilderness settings. I finished ten plein aire paintings, and took nearly 3,500 photos. I’ll post some of my better plein aires here, and also check my Facebook page and website. All the plein aire paintings are for sale, in the $350-450 range. I’ll be producing some studio paintings (more expensive) from this trip in the coming year or two. I will be exhibiting both studio and plein aire works at the Earnest Coe Visitor Center at Everglades National Park in 2013.
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.