plein air painting in Spring flooding

A Plein Air Today Letter to the Editor from Leo Stafsnes:

When rain is in the forecast, I’ll often hit the road for one of my favorite plein air painting spots due to the stunning muted color palette of a cloudy day. Shadows seem more vibrant, and greens look less washed out. But that wouldn’t be the only thing washed out in this adventure.

I prepared by building a custom plein air rig out of PVC piping molded to the shape of my easel to hold up an oversized umbrella (with a lot of duct tape). I carried the whole gamut down a treacherous bank and parked my setup next to a historic rail bridge along the urban Gwynn’s falls for extra cover.

plein air painting bridge over creek

As a Baltimore transplant, originally from California, I wasn’t aware that summer rain here means RAIN: sudden and powerful downpours followed by deafening lightning strikes in the middle of the day. The precipitation was nominal at my location, but before I knew it, a wall of water plowed right toward me as some local fisherman watched and chuckled at my predicament. I was inundated.

plein air painting in Spring flooding

Thankfully I didn’t have anything on the ground other than my palette box, which was held down by the easel’s leg, and I removed it so as not to cause any litter. I thought about carrying my gear up the bank but realized that moving even a foot would change the perspective on the intricate arches of the bridge, so I continued to work for the remainder of the afternoon, feet submerged in the freezing water. I placed twigs in the mud to track the slowly decreasing water level.

Now I know, however, that none of this was a good idea. Take this as a cautionary tale about the danger of flash floods. Just because it’s dry where you are, you could still be downstream of a perilous storm.

Plein air painting by Leo Stafsnes
Plein air painting by Leo Stafsnes

As is often the case in the mid-Atlantic, The storm was followed by a beautiful pink sunset that turned the bridge into my own private light display with the moon above.

Editor’s Note: Paint with friends at the Publisher’s Invitational art retreats – Paint Adirondacks and Fall Color Week! Learn more at

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