In the last few months in quarantine, I think we have all figured out how important a little sunlight and fresh air can be. My entire goal is just to help people remember how blessed we all are (especially in the magical Pacific Northwest) to be surrounded by such exquisite beauty. We just need to slow down, take a long slow breath, and look.
Stuck in the studio, due to a mix of COVID-19 and bad weather, I have been yearning to get back to plein air painting. During this mandatory hiatus, I have been contemplating why painting in nature affects me so deeply. It must have something to do with taking time for deeper observation and reflection in nature’s own settings. For just a little while, I move outside of myself, away from the frenzy of everyday life.
When painting outdoors is going well, it is like a meditation or deep prayer, but it can often feel daunting. Maybe you have felt that paradox, too. Mother Earth does not give up her secrets easily or quickly. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply paint in a comfortable studio, where light is controlled, tools are at hand, and the scope of the scene is already selected? No rain, no drifting shadows.
Despite this conundrum, I somehow pluck up the courage to face the test inherent in the task, and I once again pack up my easel, load it into my Honda, and return to nature, undeterred, with my head bowed in reverence, my spirit eager and happy to learn just a little more from the great and demanding Teacher.
Once I arrive, unload the SUV and set up my easel, paints, and brushes, and I survey what nature has to offer. Is this a moment of serenity? No. Nature can fling so much at me that it is difficult to simplify and organize this information overload. As I begin, I ask myself, how can I capture even one small part of the beauty before me? Then I remind myself of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Slowly, with much effort, and counting on the struggle to be part of its own reward, I am able to find focus and start a visual correspondence with the scene.
Gradually, as I start to paint, the process becomes about me, as the artist, and this place, this time together with my subject, the influence of light, the weather conditions, and everything else that is in the air. It not only includes the wind and bugs, but also the sounds and smells.
As Neil Gaiman wrote in The Graveyard Book, “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” Painting in nature forces me to be keenly aware of myself, yet willing to get out of the way, to practice humility and to clear my ego. It is thus that I may show gratitude while I try in some little way to honor the beauty before me. And it is then that I experience the freedom in nature, the sky, the trees, the grasses, the piercing light, the mysterious shadows – and it is then that nature becomes part of my own nature.
Just as Albert Einstein wrote, “Our task must be to free ourselves…by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”
I hope you and I get to paint together soon and share in the rigor and reward of painting in nature.
Like Anne Lamont quipped, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…Including you.”