Painting en plein air > How one artist broke out of the “winter blues” and, in hindsight of this project, the biggest lesson he learned.
Plein Air Painting: Challenged by Mother Nature
By Marc Hanson
Given this chance to write was like dropping me off in a candy store at age five and saying, “Pick one piece of candy, Marc!” There are so many things to talk about in this art life that picking one was incredibly hard to do. I’ve decided to relate a story about a very challenging painting endeavor that I assigned to myself a few years back. There is so much more to this story, but within the limitations we have here, I’ll just give you a taste of what was involved.
In March of 2009, on a cold spring day in Taylors Falls, MN, I felt that I needed to get out of the snowbound studio, and into Mother Nature with my paints and brushes and put a check on the winter “studio blues.” I’d spent most of the winter inside, with only an occasional venture out for a plein air session. I knew that once the brutal winter weather had eased up, I’d want to be back outside painting most of the time because that’s where I feel most at home as a painter. Simply put, I felt the need to shake off the metaphoric cobwebs that form from being in the studio, for what seemed like a very long winter, to get out and enjoy the spring weather, and move some paint around.
In thinking about it, I decided to give myself a serious challenge—as if being an artist isn’t enough of a challenge already. None the less, I found one. I called it my “April Painting Marathon”—four plein air paintings a day for 30 days! I would photograph/edit them, write a description for each one, post them to my website, to my blog . . . and . . . send out a newsletter every day after I returned home.
They would need to be small paintings, small enough so that I could make a statement and get them all done during the shortened days of April. The word “DAUNTING” began flashing like a migraine-induced kaleidoscopic image in my head. Committing to 120 paintings in 30 days is A LOT of commitment! To be sure that I didn’t backpedal on this idea, I announced it on my blog and in a newsletter two days prior to beginning it. No turning back after that! (The thought occurred to me that I must have a serious case of cabin fever at this point!)
At the same time I was eagerly anticipating how much this would teach me about painting the subject matter that surrounded me, past which I walked or drove daily without noticing. The project would give me the opportunity to pay closer attention to my world. I suspected that the experience would also build a pretty good mental catalogue on the subject of atmospheric mood, and be an interesting documentary about the seasonal color change in the volatile early spring landscape.
Efficient use of my time may have been the biggest lesson of all, in hindsight.
The first objective was to gather together everything that I’d need for the month so that I wouldn’t have to slow my pace to resupply in the middle of the project. Most of my surfaces were eight-ply, one hundred percent museum rag board, which I cut to size and then sealed with two coats of shellac. Cheap and simple. To give me some options, I glued a fine linen to some of the boards. But where would I store these while they dried? I found wire CD racks, which when stood upright, would hold about 35 paintings each—perfect! I bought three of them. I also ordered in enough paint, OMS, and other supplies.
I was fired up and ready to go the morning of April 1. The night before, it snowed—a precursor as it turned out to one of the coldest, wettest, windiest Aprils I’d seen in a long time. The challenge had begun!
Just so that it doesn’t sound like I think painting four small paintings a day is a big deal, it’s really not. I know many painters out there who work hard and are at least that prolific when on trips or just out for a day to paint. But consider this: prior to beginning this “marathon,” I didn’t paint four paintings a day, every day for 30 days. Imagine going home every day beaten up from the chill of the day, photographing and editing the paintings, uploading them to your website, adding them to your blog with written descriptions, writing an email newsletter with uploaded paintings, and then waiting for the intent to purchase emails to arrive, replying to and recording the sales information for the day. That’s Day 1 . . . 29 more to go.
I was lucky not to catch a cold all month long, lucky that my car didn’t die, that no one in my family had an emergency, that the plumbing didn’t spring a leak, that I live alone. Everything, strangely enough, worked in my favor to allow me 30 days of completely uninterrupted time to complete the goal that I set for myself with this painting marathon. I had a pre-scheduled three-day weekend workshop to teach right in the middle of the month and tried to make up the paintings (12 in all) from those three days. I made up all but four, by painting six one day, and five on a couple of other days.
How often does one have that much time to devote to one singular effort without interruption? Not often, I would suggest, unless you’re a cloistered monk. I tried a similar effort in March 2010, and a nocturne painting month in September 2011. Both of those were interrupted and I was unable to complete them due to unavoidable events . . . one being a collision with a white-tailed deer on my way to paint, which took my truck out of commission.
A big fringe benefit of my marathon was that I developed a large following, including bids to purchase every painting, and every one of the paintings that I put up for sale, sold. In the end, collectors were sending me emails to purchase a painting as soon as the images were uploaded on my website, before I could even type in the information about the painting!
My discipline to continue held steady, despite not wanting to put on cold, damp clothing and boots every morning, or face the howling chilly spring winds or rain. I made it through the month and lived to write about it! No it wasn’t war, but it was a battle with paint and the elements that I felt in my bones out there every single day of the month. I found that I could see paintings in areas that I previously would have only passed on the way to somewhere else. It did build a huge library of visual memories and it reinforced what I already knew—Charles Hawthorne was correct when he said that there is something worthy of our artistic efforts anywhere we look in our own corner of the world.
Since this article was originally published (Artists on Art, 2013), I’ve repeated this sort of ‘marathon’ of painting when I lived in Colorado, and on Tybee Island, Georgia, where I live now.
Learn more about Marc Hanson at: www.marchansonart.com
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