If you are in search of the perfect experience of painting outdoors and that all-important inspired location to paint, sometimes you must be willing to leave the beaten path and get your feet wet!
While driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains, one of my very favorite places for inspiration, I chanced upon a perfect accidental treasure. It was midsummer, and the vistas were stunning as they always are in this particular mountain range. They don’t call it “blue” for nothing!
I was looking for something much more intimate than the long-distance vistas that were available in spades that day. With an elevation of 6,683 feet, that’s a lot of distance, and it just wasn’t speaking to me to stop and set up to paint.
I was armed with the usual plein air equipment: camera, sunscreen, sundry paints, tiny thumb box (made by Guerrilla, it’s about the size of a nice cigar box — so compact and cute, I muse, perhaps it got its name because Tom Thumb was an artist too). And — did I mention — bug spray, lots of bug spray.
Every turn produced another breathtaking vista, and it felt as though they were as endless as the 75-mile-long crest of the drive. About halfway through and still not finding much that I could hunker down and paint for a few hours, I noticed that I was getting low on gasoline.
You do not want to be caught in the park after dark unless it’s in one of those very specific designated campground areas, and there are not any of those near my particular vistas. So I decided to just turn slightly off the main drive in search of gas and a guaranteed ability to get back home. I seemed to be driving for at least five miles, and then I saw it: a sign that said “Pebble Stream” next to a rather giant cement culvert. Now that sounded interesting to me and I decided to further investigate. After all, I was on an artistic mission to find the perfect location to paint, right?
I waded through lots and lots of underbrush (this is most definitely NOT one of those designated pull offs or scenic overlooks). Oh yes, and did I mention there was a sincere crop of poison ivy too; I mean, we’re talking bionic here. There was a pretty significant bank, more like a mini cliff of this stuff, BUT WOW, at the bottom of this obstacle course that I had to scale was the most idyllic stream I’ve seen in a coon’s age.
I’ve occupied many an hour and day of my misspent youth meandering around in the woods and traipsing along streams but this, now this was a stream that dreams are made of. As I said, there was not much in the way of sides to this stream, lots of rocks too, and nowhere to really set up my very reliable Soltek plein air rig. There were just those rather steep, sloping banks and yes, lots of genuine pebbles!
There did not seem to be many places to set up with a viewpoint that appealed to me, so there was only one solution to the dilemma. Now, much to my mother’s chagrin, as a kid I had never been a big fan of shoes, so my typical summer foot apparel of choice is flip-flops. No, I do not recommend this over much more sensible hiking boots, especially where bionic poison ivy dwells, but in this case, they served me well! Note of worth to you brave souls venturing off into the underbrush: bring alternative footwear.
I made it to the bottom of the slope, armed with my handy little Guerrilla box clipped to my cargo shorts along with a brush or two. This was where I was so delighted that I didn’t have to wade over a gazillion sharp little pebbles in bare feet or hiking boots and into the center of the stream . . . yes, you heard me right, into the center (yay for flip-flops). It was time to get wet! Now I can tell you that no one was more surprised than me to discover in the middle of July when it is just shy of 95 degrees out that a genuine mountain stream can be the best place to chill your beer.
Suffice it to say, I was not going to be able to stay in there for long, or be deterred by the conditions, so I opened up my pochade box, supplied with a willow charcoal stick, a gray, a blue, and a yellow, and a smidgen of burnt sienna paints. I often tone a canvas with that first, but I didn’t want to turn into a human Popsicle, so there would be no toning today. I whipped off a rough sketch, took a few photographs for later reference, and made a note to remember that plein air painting requires adaptability.
Fortunately, that mini paint box sealed right up, and with the cherished sketch inside I turned into a mountain goat to get back up that hill with my gear intact. As it turns out, it would appear freezing water is a reliable deterrent to poison ivy too — but don’t take my word on that, as it’s just a theory because I surely could not feel my feet or shins for at least two hours and I didn’t get poison ivy.
In the studio, when I began to turn the sketch into a painting, nothing could come close to that paramount memory of that beautiful stream on a lovely summer day, and it just kept growing in my memory into the idyllic snapshot of perfection.
The finished painting ended up being a 36 x 48-inch oil on Belgian linen (at least close enough to life size that my feet got cold looking at it). A dedicated new collector purchased it because he said it reminded him of his youth.
Sometimes, when you’re looking for inspiration for the perfect scene to paint, you must leave the beaten path and be willing to get your feet wet — uh, freezing and wet!
May your inspiration remain ever present and your adventures be many.