Croton Dam spillway

Finding balance between social activities and plein air painting, along with tips on flying with your oil paints.

Wow, what a busy summer of art and art-related adventures it has been! Typically, I try not to pack too many things into such a short time, preferring to keep a steady balance of studio and plein air work as my general mode of operation. This summer and fall was the exception, though, with lots of plans and a few hurdles to jump before settling into my normal routine once again.

It started out with getting a group of paintings up to Mountain Trails Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and another piece framed and delivered to Montgomery Lee Fine Art in Park City, Utah, for the American Impressionist Society Show. In July, I joined many of my artist friends in Grand Teton National Park for our yearly Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters event, before rushing off to Grand Targhee Bluegrass Camp with my musician son, Eric. Most of the time he played music and I painted around the Alta/Driggs area, when I wasn’t running to and from the camp.

Eric at Targhee Music Camp

Next on my seemingly non-stop journey was helping to teach, as well as delivering the keynote address, at the Fall Artist Retreat in Midway Utah, which was put on by the Plein Air Painters of Utah in partnership with the Midway Art Association. From there, it was time to leave again, to teach a fall workshop in the spectacular surroundings of Star Valley, Wyoming, on Anderson Creek Ranch, which was sponsored by the Scottsdale Artists’ School and hosted by my good friends Karen and Rich Anderson. With only a few days to spare, Eric and I were off to the Big Apple for some city painting along with a couple of reunions with family and several good friends from my high school days.

John delivering the keynote address at the Midway Fall Arts Retreat

New York, New York! Despite having grown up the son of a New York City policeman and living the first part of my life in the Bronx and then Ossining on the Hudson, it’s always a bit of a culture shock for the first day or two, until my family and I get our city bearings once again! As is our custom, it always starts out with a rousing trip to City Island, in a cigar-smoke-filled car, complete with hilarious entertainment provided by my cousin Tom! Tom usually starts out by “busting my chops” for anyone who is in earshot, and this time Eric had the experience once again! I usually manage to land few zingers, but typically only throw Tom off his mark for a few seconds before being buried alive once again by a barrage of “Bronxisms” delivered at lightning speed! Despite all that, I always take it in good humor and regard it as free entertainment that is just part of the drive home!

Tom and John in Central Park

This was Eric’s second trip to New York, and we spent the rest of the week doubled over in laughter at the stories and antics of this wonderful man who is more like my brother than a cousin! No matter what we are doing on these city trips, Tom, his wife, Helen, and their awesome family are always the centerpiece of our visit. It’s hard to calculate the history and deep family love between all of us — it runs deep! In addition to that, I have a lot of other family and good friends, some I hadn’t seen for many years up in Ossining since the days we were all in high school. Our first stop, a family party in Mahopac to celebrate my cousin Joanie’s birthday. I hadn’t seen many on this side of my family for some years and especially liked meeting grown nieces and nephews along with catching up with my cousins Missy and Evelyn!

This was also going to be a trip to spend some time with amazing high school friends and introduce Eric to this core group from his dad’s past. So, even though this excursion was billed as a painting trip, this was as much a series of reunions as it was an artistic journey.

When we weren’t spending time with family and friends, Eric and I would make our way into the Bronx or down to Manhattan either by car or on the subway, since driving into the lower parts of the city meant long trips in rush hour traffic, which was something we wanted to avoid! The first obstacle to overcome was the sheer hustle and bustle of the New York streets and finding our way from City Island to Washington Square in Manhattan. This meant a subway ride from Pelham Bay in the Bronx, down to Astor Place and Lexington Avenue, and walking from there to my painting destination.

Washington Square

Washington Square has a charm that is typical of big city life; people everywhere, in a carnival-like atmosphere, with a wide assortment of street musicians, food vendors, and miscellaneous entertainers with the occasional painter like myself; on that day, I only saw one other. Painting in Manhattan has its challenges as well as rewards. For me, it’s experiencing this place that has so much history, which dates to the time of the first Dutch settlement, the Revolutionary War, and on to my own family history that started here at the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s the stories I heard as a young child, to the trips I made into the city as a youngster with my parents and often with Uncle Bernie, Tom’s dad, who used to run Tom, my brother Doug, and I around like toy soldiers to places like Rockaway Beach, the Bronx Zoo, Freedomland, and the World’s Fair of 1964. Walking the streets of New York embodies these feelings in a way that is hard to describe, but they are always there, lingering just below the surface, lending significance to the visual experience that is New York for me!

Musicians in Washington Square

We loved basking in this beautiful setting with spectacular trees, fences, people sitting on benches, grass lawns, and a huge arch. All of this is surrounded by quaint red-brick apartment buildings on one end, and bustling city streets in the other three directions.

Setting up didn’t mean a clear view of my intended subject. Nevertheless, since people were an integral part of the scene, I was able to capture a small slice of this place with some selective editing. For this trip, I had to settle on two panel sizes for convenience in traveling, 8 x 10 and 6 x 8 inches. This limited me somewhat, but I was able to execute these small studies using a painterly shorthand to express the general feel of the different locations within the square in a minimal amount of time. Ideally, I would have liked to have painted larger, but considering the challenges of transporting bigger painting supplies down to the city on the subway, I was satisfied with this choice!

Washington Square Study
Washington Square Study

Flying was another concern, and not wanting my gear to be crushed in transit. For this trip, I used my 10 x 12-inch Open Box M, with painting supplies conveniently protected inside the Open Box M Pelican Box for safe travel. I first learned about the Pelican Box some years back when Dan Young brought one to Alaska. They are practically indestructible, can be shipped without any other packaging, and are waterproof, which makes them ideal for rafting trips such as the one Dan and I took with Rob Adamson and Mike Larson.

Of course, upon arrival in the Big Apple, I needed to secure some paint thinner for my can, which was thoroughly cleaned out and dried for the trip, with all three parts packaged separately in ziplock bags and placed inside my check-on luggage. Separating the component parts like that made it easy for TSA to look inside and not cause any confusion over what I had in there! Aside from that, a suitable medium to ensure that the paintings were dry for the trip home and a few boxes of tissues to wipe my brushes were all that was needed. For this, a trip over to the local Home Depot for some odorless mineral spirits and Michaels to get some Liquin and I was ready to go.

For those who might be contemplating a plane trip soon, my paints were all individually wrapped in ziplock sandwich bags that were then placed inside freezer bags for extra protection. Along with that I placed a product spec sheet (ASDS) with the Utrecht paint I was using to inform the TSA people at the airport. Highlighting certain key points on the ASDS sheet also helped to draw attention to the fact that “Artists’ Colors,” not “Oils,” use a vegetable-based vehicle. This evidently satisfied the TSA folks, making it possible for my painting gear to sail through inspection without incident!

Pelican Box and painting supplies
ASDS sheet

Not surprisingly — based on other experiences I have had while painting in urban environments — people usually leave me alone and I am able to work with a minimum of distractions. There are always a few people who stop to look and chat, but I’m usually able to keep working while carrying on a conversation in these situations, due to the many years of demos I’ve done with my classes and workshops. Eric was helpful as well, filling in for me when he wasn’t playing his guitar on this beautiful day in the park. Fortunately, I was able to complete two studies before running out of tissues, and used up the rest of my time taking pictures of the area before making the trip back to City Island.

Eric playing in Washington Square
Painting in busy Washington Square

One day, I managed to capture a stone arch scene in Central Park, so typical of the area, while walking with Tom and Eric. Then on another, some Bronx ambiance along the elevated rail structure, or “L.” This location below the Middletown exit on the train elicited more interaction by several people who stopped to talk art and fill us in on some of the best places to eat locally. We even met a local plein air painter who said he was acquainted with my work, something I wasn’t expecting while painting in New York City!

Study of stone arch near 77th Street, oil, 8 x 10 inches
Bronx Study along the L, oil, 8 x 10 inches
John talking plein air painting with a local subway worker
Talking with Bill, a local plein air painter

After completing the study, Eric and I acted on the restaurant advice we received and walked around the corner for a great lunch at Franks Pizza; we both recommend this place highly! After that, we were off to Orchard Beach for a quick study and hike, before joining Tom and Helen for dinner at Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant in another part of the Bronx. Oh, yeah — as always, New York food is the best and never disappoints! We ended that day with Tom being in not-so-rare comedic form, which made for a great day in the city!

Orchard Beach Study, oil, 6 x 10 inches
Bronx scene

Being that a trip like this is a mixture of social and cultural events along with the painting, I felt satisfied that I was able to knock out seven little studies in the 11 days we had with our gracious hosts and other family and friends. We even managed to spend a morning at the Metropolitan Museum, along with catching the American Masters Show at the Salmagundi Club, before making our way to Croton on the Hudson for another two days of sightseeing around Croton and Ossining, as well as joining my old high school friends for an awesome reunion.

Croton Dam spillway

In attendance that evening at the “Justin Thyme” tavern were my lifelong friends, from left to right: Mike, (me), Phil, Bobby, Joe, Jerry, and Diane. This group was so entertaining and fun that, Eric who is from another generation, in the company of older people he didn’t know, had a blast with his dad’s old crew! I’m always amazed how you can be away from people you knew, for more years than you’d like to count, and come away feeling like you never left! Aside from that, we had an outstanding time touring the Croton River as well as the Croton Dam with Diane, who graciously worked to get everyone together for this special evening!

Mike, me, Phil, Bobby, Joe, Jerry, and Diane

To wind down the trip on a painting note, I spent one of the last days setting up in a couple of coastal locations on City Island, to try to capture the feel of this unique little Bronx enclave that seems part of New York City but has a special feel, all its own. It’s a small-town feel with old shops and seafood restaurants from one end of the island to the other, where people come from all over the city on the weekends to feast.

Everywhere we went with Tom and Helen, people knew them, and Tom was “busting chops” on every street corner! We met a guy named “Bird-man” who seemed to hold his own with Tom —no small feat! They insulted each other for about 10 minutes in good old Bronx fashion before I successfully declared it a tie and “Bird-man” was on his way down the island!

Pier study on City Island, oil, 6 x 8 inches
Drydock, City Island Study, oil, 8 x 10 inches
City Island Restaurants
Eric, Tom, Helen, and John

All in all, I’d say we had a real adventure in the Big Apple, which included experiences that were not all art-related. New York is a beautiful state filled with treasures of history that I didn’t fully appreciate back in the day. It’s a place with a variety of amazing visual material that is just waiting to be painted, and I didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. It is also a place that, for me, will always have as many social elements as it does art interests, so there’s the trade-off. To paint or not to paint? In my mind, the choice is easy — I need all of it to satisfy what is important to me: family, friends, painting, and cultural activities! Until next time, John!

This article was featured in PleinAir Today, a weekly e-newsletter from PleinAir magazine. To start receiving PleinAir Today for free, click here.

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John Hughes
John Hughes teaches landscape painting classes for Salt Lake Community College and the Scottsdale Artist School, along with private art workshops and classes. His work is represented by Montgomery Lee Fine Art (Utah) and Mountain Trails Gallery (Wyoming). Hughes is a member of the Plein Air Painters of Utah, Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, and the American Impressionist Society. John’s work and art advice has been featured in Plein Air magazine, Fibonacci Fine Arts Digest, 15 Bytes magazine, Outdoor Painter, and Artists on Art. His work was recently featured in the book "Painters of the Grand Tetons" by Donna and James Poulton. He now maintains a studio in Taylorsville Utah, where he resides with his wife Teresa, four children, and two grandchildren.

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