“I am a studio painter,” I have always proudly declared, following it up with, “Plein air is too frustrating; the sun dries the paint too quickly, and the wind blows everything all over. I like my studio.”
That’s what I’d say aloud, but then I’d see plein air painters and find myself envying the time they were able to spend surrounded by nature while exploring their craft.
Nature is good — it’s healing — and outside is where I long to be. So within me, two warring factions were at work: the longing to be in the great outdoors versus the comforts and convenience of my studio.
My avoidance of plein air came to a screeching halt when, this past January, I took a trip to Ethiopia with three other artists. Plein air painting was the major focus, so I had to learn. No more excuses. So I contacted a plein air painter I knew and asked her to show me the ropes.
It is like learning to paint all over again. All my created comforts were gone. I normally use jars of Nova Color paint — many of the colors I mix myself — and my palette is a large piece of plastic on a table next to my painting surface. This can’t be done outside, as the wind blows my plastic over and sends paint flying everywhere … that is, if the sun hasn’t already dried my large dollops of color to a crisp.
I have to learn new ways and habits, and for this endeavor, I had to step out of my comfort zone. I learned that if I used a paper plate for a palette that I held in my left hand, the wind couldn’t blow it away. If I only squeeze out a small amount of paint, the sun won’t dry it before I could use it. Outside, I traded my big, cumbersome Nova Color jars for tubes of paint by Holbein, allowing me to dispense less paint at a time.
It was a challenge, and, I admit, there was some frustration. But I did it.
Successfully accomplishing this new-to-me process in Ethiopia became the impetus for a new project. Today, I started a new series called “Out and About Grand Rapids” — a series meant to force me to go be uncomfortable until it is natural for me — and the rewards have been big so far.
• I was outside today, after a very long, very cold winter. Today I spent the day outside along the river that is my backyard. The birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and I thought, “YES, this is good!”
• Any time you venture outside of your comfort zone, you expand yourself, and I know I will be a better painter for stumbling through this new practice until I find myself in a new place of really being comfortable painting outside. And that expands my options as a artist in a big way. As an avid traveler, this is a big deal.
• Speaking of travel, painting outside has taught me how painting a place lets you go deeper into that place. I see Ethiopia differently now that I have painted it on location. I have also painted on the Michigan wine trails on location, and the vineyards became even more endearing to me. I felt more connected to the land than I ever have before. And now, painting in my own backyard and around the city I live in — well, it’s priceless.
So whether you are a painter or not, whatever scares you, whatever you resist, I encourage you to move towards it and you will be rewarded!
I invite you to follow me this summer as I continue my journey from painting around my home town of Grand Rapids to stealing time away “Up North” on my beloved Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula, expanding my understanding and getting comfortable with being, at times, uncomfortable.
Cheers to learning, growing and being expanded!