When you travel by motorcycle to your painting destinations, you’re ahead of the game. “You are already acclimated,” says Mike Simpson. “You are one with the environment already.”
Lead Image: Mike Simpson’s Harley-Davidson and trailer
For Simpson, the intersection of motorcycle riding and plein air painting is a natural. He’s been painting for 40 years, and he loves to ride. Now that he is around retirement age, a meshing of two of his loves makes even more sense. “Being outdoors and riding a motorcycle and painting — I don’t know how you get much freer,” says the Colorado painter.
It’s not an easy marriage. Rain is unpleasant to ride in, as is winter weather, and high winds. Even with the trailer Simpson pulls behind his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, storage space for art materials is quite limited. But plein air painting by motorcycle suggests its own solutions and offers its own rewards. Simpson dislikes riding his motorcycle on interstates, so he takes the back roads, which constantly present subject matter for his artist brain.
“On the secondary roads, you get a better feel for the character of the land and the people and the very small towns,” he says. “My bike doesn’t lend itself to getting off road. It’s a road bike, suited for pavement, but I can still pull off in a place where a car doesn’t fit. But off-road exploration wasn’t the primary motivation. I just like riding a motorcycle and tooling around small towns.”
Simpson travels with friends, and with his wife, who is very supportive of his painting, and he also goes solo for some trips. The artist works in both watercolor and oil, often choosing watercolor for its portability and speed. He paints on blocks of 300lb cold-pressed watercolor paper in sizes ranging from 7” x 10” to 12” x 16”. “When traveling on my bike, it is primarily watercolor,” says Simpson. “It’s a matter of convenience. I enjoy painting in both media, and sometimes I do both an oil and a watercolor at the spot. But the scene decides — it’s a matter of whether I see it more as a watercolor or more of an oil painting.” Regardless, the plein air pieces are usually used as reference for larger studio work.
Simpson doesn’t consider himself a “biker” in the sense in which the term is often used, and he says that his work isn’t primarily collected by bikers. But he does play up the motorcycle aspect of his process, and he finds it helps considerably with the marketing of his paintings. “It always creates some nice interest,” says Simpson. “People see me and stop. They pull over and walk up to see what I’m doing. They do that some when I’m in a car, but the motorcycle invites the opportunity for conversation. They want to know what’s going on. My blog is called Artist on a Harley — the name kind of clicked. I followed Eric Rhoads’ Art Marketing Boot Camp videos, and I’m well aware of the importance of branding, of making yourself stand out. Collectors like the idea of the lifestyle of painting and riding a motorcycle, but they generally aren’t riders. It seems to be working.”
It’s not for everybody, but painting by motorcycle fits Simpson perfectly. In past years, he has worked at a fascinating range of outdoor activities, from running sled dogs to working as a cowboy. Riding a hog is not such a stretch. And it certainly brings him closer to his subjects.
“You are subject to the weather,” he says. “You are out in the environment, for both good and bad, smelling the smells, noticing the temperature fluctuations from valleys to high roads. You notice things. Your senses are far more alert, and it translates very well to the same feeling that artists get painting out on location.”