Painting en plein air - Cuba
In-process plein air watercolor portrait of Jesús.

Last year a group of plein air painters visited Cuba during the Publisher’s Invitational with Eric Rhoads. Months later, they’re still inspired. Stay tuned, as some of your peers are painting outdoors in Africa as you read this, and I’m sure they’ll have their own stories to share when they return.

In today’s artist Q&A, I had the pleasure of asking Deb Zeller what it was like to paint portraits while in Cuba, where the local community was both curious and willing to participate. ~Cherie

Painting en plein air - Cuba
I was hesitant to draw little Leyder, because he was so young and I was doubtful he could sit still enough. He went home to get his sketchbook to show me how important art was to him. He did an excellent job of modeling.

Painting the People of Cuba

By Deb Zeller

I was a bit intimidated in the foreign culture and wasn’t sure how or where to get started when I first went to Cuba. I don’t speak Spanish, so I anticipated a communication challenge. A friend of mine had advised me to bring along items from the Dollar Tree that the Cubans were not able to get and give them away as thank-you gifts to people who modeled for me; things like reading glasses, make-up, hair scrunchies, nail polish, gardening gloves, etc. Half my suitcase was filled with gifts.

[Related > Painting Abroad: Four Artists Share Their Reflections and Advice]

On our first day my husband accompanied me and we found a nice shady spot on the Prada, a beautiful walking street that had incredible grandeur in its day. There was a bench rail that separated the walkers from the cars, and I found several workers sitting there, taking their lunch break. I used gesture language and a sketch I had done of my husband to get permission to draw them. After I drew the first one and they learned that they got to choose a gift out of the equipment luggage by my side, I never had a challenge trying to find a model. The people lined up and waited, hoping that they would get their chance. I always wrote their name on the drawings and paintings, but I couldn’t always recognize the names they were saying. I quickly learned that I needed to have them print their names on the outside of my sketchbook, so I could spell them correctly on their portraits.

Our six days in Cuba were far too short. When we weren’t touring or eating at a wonderful restaurant, I would go out to Parque Central which was just outside our hotel and complete another portrait. The minute I walked out the door, people would ask if I they could be the model. I created 19 watercolor portraits and 27 charcoal sketches on the trip.

Painting en plein air - Cuba
This was my first day on the Prada. My model, Romeo, is giving my husband the thumbs up. Meanwhile, Felix in the orange shirt has been sitting there for a long time and Felix’s wife makes it clear to me that Felix is next.

CDH: How did traveling to Cuba and painting these portraits change you?

DZ: I am so grateful that Eric Rhoads made Plein Air Publishers Invitational to Cuba a possibility. I had traveled quite extensively when I was in the corporate world, but Cuba really stands out as a destination that I would not have been able to experience and now I will fondly remember. If you love history, Cuba is an amazing combination of the living past combined with an almost surreal present. Grandeur and squalor are right next to each other … conditions that would cause huge issues in most places around the world. The people of Cuba, however, are amazing. They exuded joy. Only a handful of people I painted could speak English, but there seemed to be a connection, despite the communication barrier. I have been creating plein air charcoal portraits at Parley Lake Winery in Minnesota for six years, so I was relatively ready for the challenge. I was taken by the strong, square jaws that clearly distinguish the Cubans. When you sit with someone for the duration of a portrait, both of you staring into each other’s eyes, it almost seems as if you touch a piece of soul. Those who could speak English were an added delight. One of my models has become my friend on Facebook and we have stayed in touch. It is not uncommon for us to comment on each other’s posts. I hope we are able to stay friends (he doesn’t use his real name on Facebook); our exchanges can be very insightful.

I am so much more grateful now for all the opportunities I have. As Americans, we take a lot for granted.

Painting en plein air - Cuba
This is my very last portrait of the trip, completed right after breakfast the day we left. My English-speaking buddies had Fidel Gonzales lined up for me. Fidel was proud of his name and even showed me his official ID card to prove it. He smoked his cigar the entire time I sketched him. When I finished the sketch and showed it to him, he started crying. It was very moving … especially since he was the persona of a “tough guy” the entire time I sketched. He didn’t own a phone or camera, so there was no way for me to share the image with him.

CDH: How did it affect your models?

DZ: The easy answer to this one is that they received some form of compensation. When I ran out of gifts that I had brought along from the Dollar Tree … things that were very difficult if even possible for them to acquire, I started giving them CUCs, the Cuban universal currency. Cubans only earn about the equivalent of one dollar per day, so giving them a full day’s wage for a 20-minute charcoal sketch or two days’ wage for a 40-minute watercolor portrait was a big deal for them and very easy for me.

The more complex answer to this question comes from the insights I gained from the few who spoke English. When I started giving them CUCs, there was a huge disappointment. The things I could buy here and bring to them, for the same amount of money, had a huge value difference to them. I was surprised that a number of those who could speak English didn’t want a gift or money. What they wanted was to talk for a while — to ask questions, to learn about Americans, and to improve their language skills. One fluent individual, a taxi driver, only wanted permission to photograph my portrait of him and give him the rights to share it. I felt a strong, positive connection with the people I met. Some asked me to return to Cuba someday because they were pretty sure they would never be able to leave Cuba and they would like to connect again.

Painting en plein air - Cuba
Many of my portraits went undocumented in photos, since my husband went off on some of the interesting side streets to paint. When he was around to take pictures, this was typical; notice how my model, Alejandro, has his arm on my shoulder.

CDH: What advice do you have for artists who are curious about painting en plein in a new culture, but are hesitant to?

DZ: It is SO REWARDING! We need to address our fears in order to grow. I will be doing this again, once my foot heals. After the Cuba trip, I had reconstructive foot surgery for an issue that I’ve had since birth. My foot was making it difficult for me to get around and that just wasn’t going to work anymore. I hope to have many more years of traveling and plein air painting in new cultures. I am really intrigued with plein air portraits, the spontaneity and the relationships, but they are much more difficult to do than studio portraits. In the studio you can have directional light which creates distinctive shadow shapes. En plein air, the light comes from all directions. Most studio models are schooled in holding a pose; people you meet on the street may or may not hold still.

Painting en plein air - Cuba
Here is an almost complete sketch of Tony. He was one of my favorites, and when Eric asked me if I could find a model for him on one of the last days, Tony sat while Eric created his portrait in oils.
Painting en plein air - Cuba
This is Yaneisy, a beautiful young Cuban woman that I sketched. I found that men were much more eager to have their portrait created than the women.
Painting en plein air - Cuba
If you’re shy about people watching over your shoulder, plein air portraits might not be for you. There was almost always quite a group of people watching and waiting their turn. This photo also shows the luggage piece that I always took out with me. I used it to carry my easel, collapsible chair and of course, the gifts that I brought with me as a thank you for modeling.
Painting en plein air - Cuba
This is Frank with his portrait. Frank spoke a little English and had a cell phone. He tried to friend me on Facebook, but we were never able to make the connection.
Painting en plein air - Cuba
Arming had such a fun haircut.
Painting en plein air - Cuba
Tatiana, also on the Publisher’s Invitational to Cuba, was one of the first to join me doing portraits in Parque Central.
Painting en plein air - Cuba
In-process portrait of Norvis. He had the most piercing green eyes, the only green eyes I had seen in Cuba. When he first made it clear he wanted his portrait painted, I was a bit intimidated by his looks … he looked a little “rough,” and I felt a pang of insecurity. All I had to do was look around at all the people surrounding me, and I knew everything would be okay. He was a very patient, kind man who was delighted with the outcome.
Painting en plein air - Cuba
This is one of my favorite photos. It was one of our last days in Cuba. Other painters in our group had discovered the wonderful time I was having with plein air portraits, and we had quite a fun group going. I lined up Tony, who had been an excellent model for me earlier in the week, and Eric painted until the light was gone. What a fun day!!!! What an awesome trip!!! I can’t wait until it’s time for The People of _______. Let the fun and experiences continue!
Painting en plein air - Cuba
The five artists from Minnesota that participated in the Plein Air Publishers Invitational experience to Cuba have signed multiple copies of the July issue. All of our work will be on display through the end of October.
Painting en plein air - Cuba
The show is almost hung. Our Artists’ Reception will be September 20, 2018 at Zeller Studio (Hopkins, MN).


The next Publisher’s Invitational is coming up soon — an adventurous group of plein air painters will visit Canada for Fall Color Week. Start making plans to join Eric Rhoads for a June 2019 trip to paint in the Adirondacks! Learn more here.

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