Painting on location has its rewards as well as challenges. I think most plein air artists would agree that painting out in nature is as good as it gets, when comparing this process to other methods, such as working from photo references or memories.
For this reason we are drawn to working from life as much as possible. Most of the challenges include the usual cast of characters, such as sun, wind, cold, heat, and mosquitoes. Usually a little forward planning will overcome these, but what about those other ones? You know . . . the funny, the odd, and the downright bizarre!
These are the elements that make the job of the outdoor painter interesting for sure, like the time I was teaching a workshop and a billy goat walked up to my easel, stuck his head in my trash bag, and wouldn’t remove it for the entire time I was teaching! He just stood there like a statue, immovable and quite stubborn. What the heck was I supposed to do? Try as I might, he just stood there with his head in the bag until I was done! Being forced to improvise on the spot, I just started putting my used paint rags into my backpack and finished the demo as quickly as I could without disturbing my visitor; whose horns, by the way, were a constant reminder that I’d better wrap things up quickly!
Then there was the time when I was painting in downtown Salt Lake City on the street and a little guy about eight years old walked up to me and held a dollar bill right in front of my face. At first I was trying to figure out what he wanted. I thought, is he trying to buy my painting? Not knowing what to do, I asked, “What is that for?” He said “My mom told me to give it to you.” I was a bit bewildered and suddenly realized that his mom thought I was some kind of street act, out there trying to busk some dough! Befuddled, I thanked him kindly and gracefully tried to explain that it was okay, I really didn’t need the money; but I’m sure I tortured the explanation sufficiently to have seemed like a real jerk!
As I thought about these incidents, I knew that there are a lot of other artist stories out there that occasionally get told around campfires but would be a hoot to share on a broader platform. With the help of John P. Weiss, who is not only a fantastic painter, but an amazing cartoonist, here are some stories by a number of noted artists:
Clyde Aspevig (clydeaspevig.com):
One time I was painting from inside my van on a country road near Fishtail, Montana, when a rancher stopped to see what I was doing. He then asked me to pay him for painting the scene in front of me, which included his ranch, along with the Beartooth Mountains in the background!
I thought he was joking, of course, as I wasn’t even on his land . . . just painting this large panoramic scene from the side of the road. To my astonishment, he continued his demand for money, and I told him to take a hike! He then drove down to his barn, hooked a load of hay to his tractor and drove it up to the other side of the fence in order to block my vision! I guess he thought he owned the entire view of the world!!!
At a different spot on the same road about four miles away, I pulled over to do another painting. Another rancher stopped, stuck his head in the van and looked at my beginning marks. He seemed confused, as my painting was very abstract at that point. I said to come back in about forty-five minutes, which he did. Looking again at the painting, he said, “Can I bring my wife down to take a look?” I said, “Of course!” Then he wanted to take me all over his ranch to show me his favorite views. He was so friendly, he even offered to put out more hay for the horses, should I decide to paint them. Two very opposite experiences outdoors!
Matt Smith (mattsmithstudio.com):
Around twelve years ago while on a barge trip southeast of Paris, I had an amusing incident. I was painting along a side road in a small village, when a fellow walked up and looked at my painting. He quickly barked something at me which I did not understand. I said I’m sorry, but I don’t speak French.
He then grabbed my brush and made an adjustment to the color of the tile on a rooftop in my painting. Well, I quickly took my brush back and readjusted the color to where it was while he watched! He didn’t appreciate that and once again grabbed the brush from me and had at it again! Thing is, this time he used a completely different color.
Realizing this was going nowhere fast, I smiled and said “ahhhh, bien”, and off he went with a satisfied look on his face! After he left I fixed my painting, packed up my gear and began walking back, when along the way I noticed a gallery full of gaudy abstract paintings, and who do you think was sitting at the desk? Perhaps this is why I prefer to spend my time painting lost in the wilds somewhere!
Kathryn Mapes Turner (turnerfineart.com):
To paint horses from life, I try, on regular occasions, to set my easel up in the corrals of the Triangle X Ranch outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. One day, I was painting a big sorrel gelding. When I finished the sketch, I stepped away from the easel where the painting was still resting. The sorrel came over and wiped off the entire painting with his muzzle! I can only assume he didn’t approve of the likeness!
Eric Jacobsen (jacobsenfineart.com):
Some years ago, I was painting in my hometown of Easton, Massachusetts, and I set up on the roadside, about a stone’s throw from my parent’s house. In front of me was a quaint view of a creek and some pastureland. The road is narrow along this stretch, so I perched my easel on a tiny strip of grass atop a stone wall. There’s a long gradual hill that climbs up from where I was situated, and it’s not uncommon for folks to speed their way down this noisy, heavily traveled road into town, right past my parents’ house.
I had been painting in this spot for about an hour or so, when I heard a strange rotating sound that started out rather faint but grew louder and louder. Not thinking much of it, I kept on painting. The next thing I knew, something hit me in the leg with a significant force! I felt a sharp pain and looked down to see a rip in my jeans along with a gash in my lower leg. I also saw what caused the incident, a hub cap veering off into the grass.
I’m quite confident that I’m the only plein air painter who ever got hit by a wayward hubcap!
Jim Wilcox (wilcoxgallery.com):
One of the most unique experiences I have had occurred a couple of years ago. I was painting on the trail just a few feet from Heron Pond, about 100 yards from Jackson Lake. My wife, Narda, and our granddaughter Hallie were sitting in our boat on the edge of the lake when a startled deer came running and splashing across a little stream that flowed from the pond into the lake.
It was headed in my direction up the trail, but it saw me just in time to take a wide berth as it went by. As I resumed painting again, I heard Narda and Hallie yelling “BEAR!” I turned around to see a bear that was now apparently the cause of the deer’s flight, running on the trail directly toward me! (This is where in an old TV show they might have said, “Tune in next week to find out what happens to Jim!”)
I thought it best to give the bear room to get by, so I stepped off the trail about 20 feet and watched as it ran by in pursuit of a much tastier meal than I could offer!
Steve Stauffer (stevestauffer.fineartstudioonline.com):
Moving from the studio into the plein air world was monumental for me. I loved everything about it: the smells, the sounds, just being out of doors and being one with nature was where I certainly felt more comfortable.
I was painting in my very first plein air event ever, the Wasatch Plein Air Paradise. All the big names were there, and I was so nervous and wanting so bad to make a good impression. To say I was focused would be an understatement.
I was painting along the road out in the North Fields, when I heard the sound of something rustling in a bag that I had snacks in; it was in the back of my Tahoe. The hatch was open and everything was exposed. When I spotted the culprit, I discovered it was a young skunk! He was in my car, eating my peanut butter cracker.
My first thoughts were, “Please God, Not here, Not now!” I froze in place, thinking that if I made a move it would have frightened him into a spray frenzy, completely ruining not only my car but my first-ever plein air competition! He finished his snack and took the rest of my crackers with him! Thank God! He jumped down, walked about 10 feet from me, moved into the weeds along the ditch and was gone! I was certainly one with nature that afternoon. A little closer than I had expected, however!
Susan Gallacher (susangallacher.com):
One beautiful sunny morning I decided to go paint out in the country in a ranch area, where the vistas are open for miles. I ended up down a long, lonely narrow dirt road with fences on both sides. I chose a spot with distant blue-violet mountains, large white cumulus clouds, and clusters of green-gray sagebrush, along with black cows.
As I started setting up my painting equipment, cows on both sides gathered, undoubtedly hoping I was there to give them a tasty morsel of food. They were poking their heads through the fence rails on both sides, almost reaching the middle of the one-lane dirt road, which forced me to set up to paint in the middle of the road.
After a couple of hours of intense painting out in the sun, I needed a break. The cows had all wondered off and were now just images on my painting. I sat down in the wild grasses, leaning against a fence post a little ways back from my easel, so I could view my painting from a distance.
Warm and relaxed, I almost drifted off to sleep, when suddenly I heard a loud slurping noise coming from the direction of my easel. I turned and saw a large black cow who had stretched her neck through the fence rails and managed to get my palette in her mouth!
She was munching away on the corner that held piles of red oil paint; cadmium red light, cadmium red medium, and alizarin crimson. I jumped and ran towards her, grabbed my palette from her mouth and started wiping the red paint from her large lips. She didn’t back away, as she seemed to think I was feeding her the paper towels, which enabled me to rub all across her lips frantically working to get the bright red paint off!
My frustrated efforts only worked to spread the red paint all over her lips, top and bottom. She looked hilariously funny as though some prankster had put lipstick on her! She soon pulled away and roamed back into the field.
Later that day, as I drove past the scene of the crime, I wondered how she was doing. Well, I can’t say for sure if I did anything to improve that cow’s love life, but I couldn’t help but notice that she was being followed by several bulls who seemed quite taken by her!
Scott L. Christensen (christensenstudio.com):
In the late ’90s I was painting near Carmel, California, at Garrapata State Park. At the time, I was working large in the field and had brought along a French easel to work on a 20” x 40”. I set up my easel next to a rather large cliff, overlooking the expansive ocean.
After setting up, I put the 20″ x 40″ on the easel and loaded the palette with more paint to get started. All of the paints and brushes were in a bag. Usually I remember to put the aforementioned bag or a big rock on the back of the easel for weight. Eager to paint, it must have slipped my mind. Wind came up gradually but there was a sudden burst.
My brush was just about to touch the canvas as the unexpected gust of wind launched my entire painting and easel off the cliff and into the ocean. In that moment, I realized the 20″ x 40″ can transform instantly into a kite. I saw all of my equipment disappear before my eyes. I boldly slunk over to the edge and watched as everything floated away in pieces below.
Do you have a hilarious plein air moment? Share it with us in the comments below!