Extreme plein air painting > This 23-year-old painter has figured out how to take her easel up the side of cliffs and through the branches of giant redwoods to dizzying heights. Here’s why.
BY AMANDA MORETTINI
Many of us would agree that plein air is one of the purest forms of painting. I’ve always enjoyed painting from a photo in the studio, but there is something special about being in the moment and painting what is live in front of my own eyes. I have only been plein air painting for about two years now, and I’ve realized that it comes with its own special challenges, such as the lighting, time of day, weather, and the comfort of the location.
The more I painted outside, the more I found that painting while I was cold, or when it was too windy, or from any uncomfortable position changed the outcome of my piece. I realized I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and discover what might be possible by painting in new precarious locations. In the last six months, I have been combining two of my favorite activities — plein air painting and climbing. It has been a thrilling experience painting while perched on the sides of cliffs and at the top of 200-foot redwood trees swaying in the breeze.
When I first met my partner, Evan, he was excited to ask if he could commission a painting for the cover of his upcoming rock climbing book. I had never rock climbed before, and at the time I never saw myself enjoying it because of my fear of heights. I quickly realized, though, that rock climbing is done in very beautiful places, so we came up with the perfect plan; we would travel to many breathtaking destinations where he would climb and I would paint.
After many local climbing/painting trips in our home area of Humboldt County, CA, I found myself having the desire to learn to climb myself. Luckily, I had my own live-in climbing coach. Eventually, after overcoming my fear of heights and growing my climbing skills, Evan’s enthusiasm convinced me that I should explore painting from more thrilling and unorthodox locations. Now, when we go on trips, we climb together and find exciting views for me to paint, even if it is on a small ledge hundreds of feet above the ground. It has been very special to bridge the two very different worlds together.
As you could imagine, there are some interesting challenges that come with painting so high off the ground. The first challenge comes with carrying the easel and supplies while climbing. I use the Edge Pro Gear PaintBook easel along with a small tripod since it is lightweight and can fit inside a small backpack. Despite those weight savings, the bag still gets heavy as I need to carry up paints, brushes, paper towels, thinner, canvas panels, a wet panel carrier, as well as food, water, and sunscreen for the several hours that I am committed to my small perch on the wall. The whole time, I must work very carefully in order to avoid dropping my brushes or any other equipment into oblivion.
Whether I’m scaling the side of a cliff or ascending a giant redwood tree, the climbing itself is a very physical and mental challenge. Rock climbing is very technical; you have to move your body in specific ways to balance and stay attached to the wall with only the tips of your fingers and toes. Climbing a redwood involves trying to balance your weight to minimize the force put on each individual branch. Breaking dead branches is not uncommon.
Even while using all of the normal climbing safety precautions like using a harness, rope, and helmet, it is still spooky to climb so high. Once I make it to the ledge or branch that I call home for the next few hours, I anchor myself and get to work finding a creative way to secure the easel’s tripod to uneven rocks or to nothing but branches.
I also experimented with plein air painting while kayaking in the Andaman Sea in Thailand. I thought setting up the easel would be the hardest part, but rather it ended up being fighting off sea sickness. The result of this discomfort caused my brush strokes to be free and chaotic, unlike any I’ve done before, and enabled me to grow and develop my painting abilities.
When I begin a painting, I forget about the heights and all the work it took for me to get to my ledge, branch, or even nauseating kayak seat; the act of painting is my comfort. I am able to lose myself in the painting process, and everything else melts away. These challenges, while more extreme than your average plein air outing, make the process all the more exciting. I could just take a photo from up there and head back to the studio to paint it, but it’s all about the experience for me, and what an amazing experience it is.
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