Minnesota artist Philip Alexander Carlton was not impressed with painting winter in the Midwest until he realized he could apply lessons learned on his lengthy road trip.
“I really doubled down on painting this year, and hit the road for a few weeks in August and then a month in October, painting the Badlands, Tetons, Yellowstone, Arches, Canyonlands, Yosemite, and the Eastern Sierra, pretty much being an unemployed painting bum for a while,” explains Carlton.
“When I came back to Minnesota by way of Moab in November, I was so depressed by the typical Midwest winter scenery that I didn’t paint outdoors for more than a month. But then I gave it a go, and started to analyze snow and pavement like I learned to analyze sandstone formations in Utah. I began to find incredible color in what I always thought of as the endless gray of Minnesota winter. And despite having driven more than 10,000 miles to paint last fall, my favorite place to paint became the industrial park surrounding my art studio.”
Now, Carlton practically gushes about the possible subject matter around his home. He posted one painting on social media that caught many people’s attention. PleinAir Today asked him to comment on the piece, which is titled “Industrial Meltdown” (above).
“The low sun angle in January, combined with the patchwork snowmelt over the roads, makes for brilliant light and color, and the cold temperatures allow for colossal smoke formations from the industrial facilities in the neighborhood,” Carlton responds. “The options for composition are endless. The recycling plant I painted is a few blocks from my studio of almost 10 years, and I’ve always been fascinated by it but had never taken the time to really stop and observe it.
“The painting was done over two days; the first session was shorter as it clouded over after 45 minutes. I resumed in sun the next day. We had a weather window of back-to-back days above freezing, which is unheard of in Minnesota this time of year. Normally we’re happy for 15 degrees and sunny — I took advantage of the forecast aligning with my days off work to paint a really technical scene. I’m quite happy with the result.”
So in a sense, it is the classic story of going away in order to appreciate home with fresh eyes. “In the end, it’s been odd, I used to shy away from winter painting for a lack of obvious color,” says Carlton. “Now I’m blown away by the colors when the sun is out. It’s amazing how time painting the West last year has reshaped my ability to paint winter in the urban Midwest.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2017. We reached out to Carlton for updates, and his is what he shared with us:
I’m now primarily painting in the Western states (Moab has been a temporary winter home), but still feel the same way about the importance of letting western light and texture inform my urban scenes elsewhere in the country! It will be interesting to see how all my recent western work influences what I make at Plein Air Easton this year.
My old studio building sold to developers in 2018 and I’ve been without a studio since then, fully embracing plein air as the totality of my work. It has been interesting, pushing my limits for scale and subject matter and thinking outside of the box about what can and should be finished on location.
2020 was a year of extremes for my painting locations. I spent the first half the year in Covid isolation, painting in the same industrial zone by my former studio. I became particularly smitten with the piles of rubble at a nearby concrete recycling center called the “Bolander Crusher,” in no small part because it reminded me of the endless scree fields at the base of every mesa around Moab. I was using what I learned in the desert to simplify piles of crushed rock in the city. Mid-year I transitioned to the west to work on a slightly more classical body of work.
Connect with Philip Alexander Carlton: www.pacarlton.com
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