Plein air painting
Plein Air Painter Nancy Klos

Nancy Klos on painting en plein air: “My hope in this restricted time is for all of us to realize the message of Mother Nature is an offer, a reflection, an opportunity to consider this particular story on a far grander scale.”

Plein Air Painting and the Healing Power of Mother Nature

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the struggling economy, and the protests, there has been a secondary and equally important narrative…quietly marching on. Images of clear air in major cities around the world, waters where you can see fish swimming by, reduced ozone at the top of the planet and more reports of the healing power of Mother Nature.

This is where I wish to begin my story as a plein air painter, now in my eighth year of painting on location. I make my home in Portland, Oregon and have painted in many places throughout the NW, California, New Mexico and some places in Europe as well. This story is one that is close to home in one of the world’s most beautiful scenic areas: The Columbia River Gorge.

As you may know this powerful Columbia River begins where Montana meets Canada and courses its way through to a place where both Washington and Oregon states can claim it. From there this mighty river travels west out to the Pacific Ocean. The area I am describing here is on the Oregon side of the water in the Multnomah Falls tourist destination along the Scenic Old Highway, where multiple waterfalls become full in the spring melt from Mt. Hood snow fields.

Black Lace

Late last summer into early fall I decided to see for myself what exactly had returned after The Eagle Creek Fires of 2018. The fire burned for three months, torching 50,000 acres and creating its own weather throughout the region. The smoke was so bad that I had to stay inside for the duration. At the time I also decided that I needed to paint along with the nightly news.

“Eagle Creek Fire” by Nancy Klos

I set up in the kitchen and painted images of the fires, smoke, and the lack of visibility to document my understanding of it all from my home in Portland. Many described this devastation as a personal one and felt great sadness at the destruction created by arson of this beloved natural environment. And so, plein air was not a real option for the rest of the year. My kitchen became my studio. The sun looked like the moon on fire – orange and gray in the mornings. The moon looked like the sun at dusk – yellow and golden with brown skies. A visual sadness, a heartfelt loss.

“Moon and Smoke” by Nancy Klos
“Ignite” by Nancy Klos

Slowly, there was some news of reopening. The Multnomah Lodge had survived – just barely. The spring of 2019 brought snow melt from Mt. Hood. Charred trees and branches created a Black Victorian lace pattern against the sky when you would travel from Portland to Hood River. In addition, there was the return of spring green at the base…new growth…renewal…and lots of rain. Something we do best in the northwest and a very welcome cleansing for the return of spring!

“After the Fires” by Nancy Klos

Eventually there was news that you could once again visit the falls: Mutlnomah at the base, Horsetail just off the road, Oneonta, Bridlevail, Latourelle, Wahkeena on up to Crown Point. This was the invitation I had been waiting for – the chance to paint in these beautiful locations. My intention was to document these various falls. What happened in fact was quite unexpected.

“Smoke I” by Nancy Klos
“Smoke II” by Nancy Klos

When you first approach a subject, it takes time to establish the composition, palette, and purpose. My painting of Horsetail Falls was really about these things. The next part of the series came more easily in the days and weeks that followed.

Multnomah Falls was far too crowded with limited access to even consider setting up to paint. Most tourists don’t even know that there are many falls along this Old Highway and trails that connect them all. So the next set of paintings were done on location at the falls that come down from the ridge on the east side of Multnomah Falls Lodge. This is where I discovered that real healing that had taken place in these locations just one year after the fires.

With every painting came more of a settling in, a familiarity with my palette and possible variations on the themes of waterfalls, regrowth in spring greens, lichen, black and dark grey granite rocks. The sounds of the falls eliminated the conversations of tourists. The spray from the water falling kept me cool in the shade as the temps heated up.

When I am truly painting and in the flow, I lose all sense of time. There is a natural closure for me when I paint en plein air…a point at which the painting is done, the visit is over, a loss of concentration and then a feeling of exhaustion that is both a relief and a renewal at the same time.

“Wahkeena Falls” by Nancy Klos

I created a dozen paintings from these visits to the falls. There was a connectedness, a sense of purpose, and most of all a gratitude that filled my thoughts as I was driving away. This sense of gratitude is especially heightened now in these beautiful months when painting on location is not really possible with the stay-at-home mandates still in place. My hope in this restricted time is for all of us to realize the message of Mother Nature is an offer, a reflection, an opportunity to consider this particular story on a far grander scale.

To all of us who love and respect nature, get out as much as we can to paint in it, regard its beauty, feel small in the perspective of the Natural world…how can we collectively send the message once more that healing is possible? Will we plan, live, paint, tell stories about the fragility of maintaining our world during this time we have to pass through it?

I know I am in good company with plein air painters worldwide. But this message needs to go further, reach more people, assure our kids that yes, there will be a beautiful natural world preserved for them to enjoy. And so, this story becomes an object lesson of a sort – something of an example of what can be if we regard this healing as a priority.

To all painters heading back out to find the peace that comes with hiking, painting, writing in the natural world…our work, images, and hopes are needed now more than ever at this time of transition and change. The disruption to our lives, the devastation in our cities, the disappointments have run deep…and left us all with a giant black canvas to consider as we move forward from here. Peace be with you as well all find our ways back to center. Namaste. Mother Nature has a message for us…are we listening? May the art we create lead the way. Together.

Nancy Smith Klos
Painter/Arts Educator
Portland, Oregon

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