R. Gregory Summers knew this painting experience was going to be quite different. But suddenly there were people falling down all around his feet, Native Americans were running through the woods behind him, and mock gunfire was ringing in his ears. 

Summers working on location at the battle re-enactment.

Summers was invited to paint the re-enactment of the Battle of New Orleans in its bicentennial year, an event that consists of five related battles that effectively ended the War of 1812. The Kansas artist was told he needed to wear period clothes and use an appropriate easel (a French easel) and to stay along the woodline. Little did he know that this did not mean he would be separate from the action. “It was crazy, actually,” says Summers. “I had to get across the battlefield and in position just 30 minutes ahead of time to get set up. But I didn’t know exactly where the action was going to be. I would sketch in lines in one direction and the battle would end up being in a different place.”

“British Victory on the West Bank, Jan. 8, 1815,” by R. Gregory Summers, 2015, oil, 11 x 14 in.

The first battle was a night battle. In addition to trying to catch the fleeting action — the battle only lasted 39 minutes — Summers had to dodge the gunpowder being ejected out of the guns, manage the LED lamp on his easel (which suffered from ailing batteries), and paint via headlamp. “That was my favorite painting,” he says. 

“The Artillery Duel, Jan. 1, 1815,” by R. Gregory Summers, 2015, oil, 8 x 16 in.

Summers didn’t premix colors, but after the first battle he had some correct colors mixed on his palette that helped him in subsequent paintings. The re-enactments were relatively brief, but the individual actions of the soldiers were sometimes slow enough for close study. “Some would pose and shoot,” says Summers. “They have to kneel and load their guns, and I would try to remember and throw down the outline to give the impression that someone was there. I like to paint fast, but I thought the battles would last longer than they really did.”

The re-enactment underway.

All battles were staged on the same field. Summers changed his viewpoint to avoid showing the same trees the same way in each painting. Strict accuracy was not his goal. “I wish I were more historically knowledgeable about what exactly happened in each battle, but I couldn’t really tell by looking and so I didn’t depict whether one side was winning,” he says. “I just tried to capture the feel of battle.”

“Battle of New Orleans,” by R. Gregory Summers, 2015, oil, 8 x 16 in.

Summers had painted military camp settlements, “with people moseying about,” he says, but never battle action before. “I tell you this: That was one crazy deal. I had no idea what I was getting into. I’m not normally an action painter. I go with long roads and wide valleys, things that hold still — that’s what I normally paint. I totally jumped out of my comfort zone on this one, and after the initial fear was over, I loved every minute of it.”

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