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August 2006

August 2006; Water

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  • Painting in the Rain

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  • Painting in the Rain
    by Ellen Million

    In June, I had the amazing opportunity to join a painting class traveling up into the Brooks Range in wild northern Alaska for five days. Ideally, I'd be sporting a sunburn and talking about how gorgeous the weather was, but painting outdoors is always at the whim of mother nature. Instead of sun, it poured. Not the whole time, fortunately, but enough of the time that I was very happy for the dry spells, and developed a number of tricks for dealing with downpours and paint.

    Painting outdoors is called plein air painting, from the French term translating to in the open (or full) air. Very simply, rather than sitting at a drafting (or dining room) table bathed in artificial light, you pack up your art gear and head outside to paint what's actually out there. It's much like painting a still life, except that it isn't still at all, and instead of setting it up to suit you, you have to go find a spot that has already been created.

    What to bring:

    If you live in a desert area, you probably don't need to plan for rain, but you still need to plan. Consider what your environment is going to be like, and think ahead! If it is sunny, bring sunblock and a shade for your eyes. If it is likely to be windy, make sure you bring some way to anchor your art as you work on it. I had very happily set up my easel and squeezed my paint out into my pallet when a gust of wind blew my canvas into my lap - right on top of that pallet of fresh paint. I was glad I hadn't started painting yet, and was careful to clip the top of the canvas to the easel after that!

    Pick your medium based on what you like to work in, but also on what will work for your weather. If rain is in your forecast, I strongly recommend against watercolors or even acrylics, unless you are sure you can protect them well. Oils are your best bet for wet weather though even they can get rained out! At one point, it was pouring so hard, my brush was too wet to pick up paint off of my pallet, and the canvas was too wet for the oils to stick to! I was lucky, too - the folks using acrylics were watching their paintings drip off of their canvases before they could get them covered. I was also soaked to the skin, even through my Gortex, and decided that there was a point at which you finally had to call it a day - and that I was at that point.

    Remember that there is travel associated with painting outdoors. You don't want anything terribly heavy, unless you can transport it by car directly to where you will be painting. Because you have to haul paintings back when you're done, consider quicker drying mediums so you don't have to worry about stacking wet oils. I found that alkyd oils, which will dry overnight, worked great and retained all the lovely squishy properties of regular oils.

    I had to lug my painting gear out about half a mile on a narrow game trail on the tundra, and this is what I ended up bringing with me:

    Backpack - Like everything, make sure it's one you don't mind getting paint on, unless you're working in a water soluble medium or much tidier than I. It should hold all of your gear, except maybe your easel and canvas.

    Oil alkyd paints, brushes, thinner, pallet, a can, and a jar (for using the thinner) - Or whatever medium and necessary extras you need.

    Canvas boards you can bring stretched canvases, of course, but I found that canvas board was far lighter, and less bulky. It also ships much more cheaply and fits in nearly all frames.

    Easel - I ordered one just for this trip, and have rarely been so happy about a purchase I couldn't see and try first. I used a Winsor & Newton Aluminum Bristol easel, which folds neatly into a tiny carry-case, weighs about five pounds and is sturdy, fully adjustable, and will hold enormous canvases. It set up very easily. They retail at $80, but Dick Blick art supplies has them about half off!

    Folding chair - The professionals may tell you that it's better to stand while you paint, to utilize the full range of your arm from the shoulder. I am a wimp, and I have a bad back, so I brought a small, three-legged camping stool. It worked fine while I was painting, but at the end of three days straight on that thing, it did give me bruises on my butt, and I never wanted to sit on it again. Compromise between comfort and portability - in my case it was very, very light and fit in my backpack.

    Several rags for cleaning up paints, dabbing paint off the canvas, and in more than one case, killing bugs. (I'm squeamish about bug guts)

    Garbage bags - I was surprised how much use I got out of these. First, everything you take out with you has to be taken back in - including trash. Second, these were great for throwing over my backpack, my canvas, and even myself when the rain got really bad! It also works great for keeping wet oils from getting on other things that shouldn't have wet oil paints on them.

    Food - Bring some snacks! Painting is hungry work, and once you're in the groove, you don't want to have to pack up just because your stomach is growling.

    Water - Bring enough to clean up your hands before you eat, and to drink, and for your paints, if you are using something water soluble! Make sure it is in a leak-proof container that won't break if you drop your pack.

    Bug dope - Rain tends to keep mosquitos down, and they don't swarm in hot sun, but boy do they like all the in-between weather! I also recommend a mosquito head net if you're in a particularly vicious area.

    Gear for sun and rain and snow - I brought an extra sweater, extra socks, rainpants, raincoat, a brimmed straw hat, a sheepskin hat, sunblock and gloves. I used them all at some point during the day. I also found that it is great to have a painting smock you can fit over your rain gear! I am very fond of my raincoat and didn't particularly want to get it splotchy with paint, so I used a men's shirt size extra huge that fit right over top of all of my weatherproof gear. The brimmed hat was very useful when the sun saw fit to show up - and much better for painting than sunglasses because you don't want tinted glass throwing off your colors! It is very important to remember that many kinds of raingear and many kinds of thinner do not play well together - be careful with your thinner or your raincoat (or tent) may not be waterproof anymore!

    Picking your Spot

    Once you've started, you probably won't be moving until you're finished, so pick your spot carefully.

    You don't want to be staring directly into sunlight. You know those purple spots you tend to see after looking at the sun? Those can affect how you are selecting your colors, and how you are seeing your subjects, even if you don't notice them until you look away. It's also a tremendous strain on your eyes. Remember that the sun moves throughout the day - if you are working on a large painting, think about where the sun will be as you are finishing, not necessarily just where it is when you begin! I didn't have to worry much about that - most of our trip was spent trying to stay dry.

    In the case of threatening clouds, look for a place where you can hang a tarp to stay dry underneath, or a nature shelter. I was mostly in open alpine tundra or tree-less gravelbars, so I didn't have that option! A large rain shelter would have been nice, but that starts to get heavy and bulky to bring along. If you were setting up for several days, it would be worth it.

    Make sure you can sit comfortably for long enough to complete the painting, and that you aren't a danger to traffic or other people. Don't set up camp in the middle of a path that bicycles use, for example, especially close to blind corners!

    Perhaps most important to picking your painting spot - what will you be painting?

    Compose your canvas carefully. You want an interesting foreground, middleground, and background. Sure, you can break those compositional rules - great artists break rules all the time! But it's a lot easier to get a successful piece by starting out with good basics. It is best to get something that leads between these areas, to tie them together into something more than disassociated lines across your canvas. For this, rivers and roads are great natural choices.

    Wilderness Painting

    There are several things to think about while out in true wilderness, as opposed to peopled urban areas (which can also make great painting excursions!).

    First, can you get lost? Make sure that someone knows where you are going, and take a buddy if at all possible! Non-artist friends tend to get bored, so it's kind to pick a place where they can go fishing or hiking, or have some other kind of entertainment for them. Take a basic survival kit with you, and know the area or find some landmarks to use to orient your way back to civilization. For example, knowing that the highway crosses the river downstream of you means you can always follow the river to the road if you otherwise become hopelessly lost.

    Make sure you can get dry and warm. Bring proper shelter and a dry change of clothing that you leave behind at the car or tent, just in case of a wicked downpour. I was about four hundred miles away from my warm home, and about a hundred miles from any kind of 'real' shelter. If my tent had leaked, and I hadn't brought that one last pair of dry socks, I would have been much more unhappy than I was. After my rain painting, I was able to crawl into a dry, comfortable tent and change clothing completely - it was chilly, and I would have been miserable if I hadn't been able to do that. As it was, dry clothing and a hot drink later, and I was ready to go again!

    Are there dangerous animals in your area? Know what they are, and be prepared for them! Though animal attacks are not common, they are not rare, either, and you should be prepared. I can't help you with rattlesnake country, but I'd be sure to read up on it before I went out painting in their turf. North of the Brooks range, our primary predators are bears, but lone wolves have also attacked a hiker and a motorcyclist this summer in the area. I carried pepper spray with me, and stayed within view of other artists. Bears are attracted to smelly stuff - like oil paints! Our instructor told us about one of his paintings that was slashed by a bear who decided it had offended him. I carried a whistle, also, but this was for alerting the other people in my party. Whistles sound like marmot calls, and will not deter a bear at all - quite the opposite!

    Why bother?

    With all the bugs and rain and things that will eat you and effort, why would anyone even bother going outside to paint? Can't you paint just as well from photographs or imagination?

    The short answer is, no!

    There is a scope to being outside that you can't capture in even a large photograph, and there is a much, much wider choice of composition - which is one of the keys to creating artwork. There are no phones or Internet to distract you while you work, or dishes that need to be done, or pets trying to crawl into your lap. Natural lighting is fabulously superior to anything artificial, and it is fascinating, challenging and amazing to watch it change as you work.* There is a sense of connection to your subject, because you are living it, and capturing that is an amazing accomplishment. Being outside is invigorating, and even getting soaked is an adventure. Even if you're not a 'landscape artist,' it's a fantastic way to open your eyes and re-energize yourself about putting realistic backgrounds in your usual work. I strongly recommend taking the time to try it!

    *It was advised to me to 'chase the light' - always work every area of your painting as you go along, so that the parts match each other - don't to try to remember what it looked like. Likewise, don't put in a tree just because you think there ought to be one - that sort of defeats the idea of painting from life!

    Ellen Million has always had a passion for projects. Visit her site for prints and embarrassing archives.
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