Thursday, June 28, 2012

Remembering Plein Air

I take a lot of digital photos of the places I paint. Sometimes I take them to try and capture that special feeling that made me want to paint the scene in the first place. My family and I are always looking for that perfect picture opportunity when we go on trips. Like a lot of folks in the digital age we don’t usually print all of these out. Unlike the days of film when you took rolls into the drugstore to send them off to be printed, when those pictures came back it was with anticipation that we’d take them out of the envelope and look through them. One thing that hasn’t changed is our inability to remember situations and circumstances surrounding each of the pictures we take with our cameras. There are many times I will look through folders of digital pictures taken with the family and not remember exactly where we were and what was going on when the photograph was taken.

I took a client into my studio yesterday and realized that I can remember almost everything about every plein air painting I have done. When one stands in a place for a few hours focusing on the subject matter of your painting, things seem to seep into your soul. The smells, the atmosphere, the weather, the bugs, and many other things make up the experience of painting en plein air. I don’t know about you, but many of my paintings have bits of the location embedded into the paint, literally. Bugs and dirt always seem to make it into the composition. I sliced my thumb open once with a palette knife and suspect that part of my DNA made it into the finished piece. But we won’t tell the paintings’ current owner about that.

I can’t tell you what I had for lunch two days ago, but I can relate in formidable fashion the story of the small painting that now resides in a United States government building in Portugal. That morning, about 3 years ago, the clouds were rolling in, the wind picking up, and the temperature dropping. While painting it had dropped through the lower 50’s into the upper 40’s. But cold hands and feet were nothing compared to the pre-painting party I had.

When searching out a spot on this particular piece of land, I decided to go into the pasture where the cattle feed most of the time. It looked deep in mud, but there might be a dry spot to paint an old house on the back side. Instead of going through the gate I looked at the barbed wire fence and saw it was nailed to the tree which meant no electricity. I had lifted the strand above me with my right hand and was straddling the lower strand, when I pushed down on that one with my left hand... ZAP! I hit the ground hard on my right knee, with the feeling that something bit my left arm. I hadn’t noticed the middle strand was hot until it was too late. Too bad nobody was there to take a pic, I’ll bet it was pretty funny to see.

I got up, walked to the gate, went through, and set up in the nicely mowed lawn just outside the cattle feeding lot. The painting turned out really well, with sort of electric colors.

Most other plein air painters can relate similar stories. Stories of painting in the extreme heat or frigid temperatures. Icicles hanging from my beard, coffee freezing in the cup. Snakes and other critters barging in on our painting parties.

Like the time I had hundreds of bites from a little bug known around here as a Turkey Mite. I stood for a couple of hours on what I now figure was a nice dusty spot for the wild turkeys to flop around and knock some of the mites off their bodies. I didn’t feel any bites until I started driving home, but at that point I couldn’t see any insects. After arriving home I finally located one of the little things, a tiny black speck that looked like a grain of dirt. I scratched it off onto a white counter, looked closely, and finally saw it move. Ugh. I showered and scrubbed hard and still woke up the next morning with a couple of hundred extremely itchy bites on my body. I don’t know how long they live, but I do know that I had new bites the second morning. It took much trial and error but I finally figured out that lice shampoo was the only thing to kill the little buggers.

I could tell a story about every picture I’ve done. Snake stories, and bathroom break stories. Or snake AND bathroom stories combined into one. Painting tales seem to grow like fishing tales. Man oh man! You should have seen what I painted today...before the bear came along and ate it. And speaking of telling tall tales, most plein air events and competitions are replete with adventure stories from artist to artist.

I don’t remember graduation night from my high school. Or much of my childhood for that matter. I don’t recall a lot of what some people might refer to as important moments in my life. BUT... I remember when my wife and I got married. I remember my daughter being born. And I remember painting in wind that was blowing fine dirt into my face so hard that I had to close my eyes and hold on to my canvas. It really is strange how the human mind works. Maybe I have selective memory which I would assume is very similar to selective hearing. My wife says I suffer from that latter affliction on occasion.

In any case, our memories are something to be cherished. Whether they be painting memories, or family ones. School, vacation and even work memories can give us pleasure, or cause us anxiety filled pain. But to stand in the middle of nature, soaking it all in, and putting those feelings down on canvas, etches the time and place onto our souls. To be recalled as we permit. To boast or humble ourselves, and to make others laugh. These stories we outdoor painters tell are not only what happened to us in the field that day, but what we felt, heard, saw, and experienced. Those days are the ultimate mental journals that we will look back through over time, to give ourselves peace and solitude.


Michael Manley said...

Bugs are the worst, and drunks, lots of drunks will come up here in Philly and tell you how to paint or how you are doing. We should write a guide book ;-)

Sue Pownall said...

Thank you for sharing a few of your tales. You are so right, we do remember the stories behind those pictures so much easily than photos.

Bill Guffey said...

Thanks Mike and Sue. The only drunks I've had to deal with down here were on the golf course. ;)