Monday was a beautiful day. It was the first day in a long time when it hasn't been raining or cold or both. So I decided that it was time to pull out the plein air supplies and go outside. First I needed to go to the lake and check on the boat (pointy end still up, no water in the hull-check) and the camper (canvas still attached, no rodents-check). After a lunch of leftover chicken wings from a Super Bowl party, I was off to look for a place to paint. The thing is, I have never done this by myself before. I wasn't sure what the rules were. Can I just find a place and set up my easel without some farmer with a shotgun coming out to shoo me away? If I find a beautiful place to paint but it's not on the main road, is it safe for a woman alone to just set up the easel and start painting? How do I decide where to go and what to paint? There are so many beautiful places in the area around Smith Mountain Lake.
I drove around and decided that I would look for tin roofs- the kind that age and turn beautiful colors as the rain, sun and acid in the air interact with the metal. First, I found a little country church with a lovely roof that had colors of mossy greens and rusty reds with some purple and teal mixed in. I pulled into the parking lot and got out to look around. I took some photos and almost set up my easel. But there was nobody there and no phone number to call, so I decided to move on and look some more. I stopped to get a drink (more on that later) and use the restroom at a convenience store and noticed a little country road off the main road, so I decided to follow it. I meandered around back in the hills and found another road, then a gravel road with a "House for Sale" sign and an actual road sign indicating that it was a public road and not a driveway, so I drove on.
As I came over the hill, I saw it. A very old barn with a beautiful rusty roof all the way around it. In the distance was a large white farmhouse and beyond that, a horse barn and then the lake. I was still on the public road and thought maybe I would just pull my car off the road, pull out my easel and start painting. But something told me that I should really go and ask the people whose barn it was for permission. I drove down the long lane to their house and was greeted by a barking dog who looked a little bit like an Australian Shepherd who had just been for a swim in the lake and a roll in the red dirt. I pulled up, stopped and rolled down my window to have a little chat with the dog. Then I slowly got out, softly greeting her in what I hoped she would read as a soothing, friendly voice. It seemed to work. I have never seen a dog do this before, but still on her side, tail wagging, she scooted along in my direction on the ground and let me put my hand down so she could smell it. Then she rolled on her back and let me scratch her belly. We were now, I found out later, friends for life!
I knocked on the door but nobody was home so I just took a few pictures of the barn and got back in my car to leave. Just then, a man driving a tractor came down the driveway. I waved at him and told him I am an artist and asked permission to paint the barn. He couldn't have been more pleasant. He introduced himself and I gave him my card to show that I really am an artist. He said I could paint anything I want and explained to me that there had been a 100 year old house on the farm when they bought it about 15 years ago, but they had 5 children and the house had only one bathroom, so a friend of his who had bought the farm next door actually moved the old house to the land next door and the farmer and his wife built this lovely large farmhouse where the old house had been.
I set up my easel, drew a few thumbnail sketches, took some photographs from all angles of the barn and started painting. The location I chose was right next to the fence by a horse pasture. I had seen the horse earlier but hadn't paid much attention. While I was painting, I looked up and there was the horse, leaning over the fence and sniffing my brushes. I put my hand out and, not finding any food, he sniffed around some more, stepped back and sniffed again. I am guessing this was his first encounter with oil paint. He was very friendly and let me rub his muzzle. Then a car came down the driveway and he ran down the pasture. It turned out to be the farmer's wife, who was coming home from work. She came out and greeted me. She told me the dog's name is Charlie and the horse's name is Picasso. She also invited me to come back whenever I want to paint again. She and her husband told me that the barn had actually been an old tobacco barn that had been moved to its current site from somewhere else before they bought the farm, but they were not sure from where.
It was a lovely afternoon! I stayed as long as I could until it started to cool off and-remember the comment I made earlier about getting a drink at the convenience store? That drink caught up with me. One of the challenges of painting outdoors is that often, there are no bathrooms. I was just getting ready to leave to answer the call of nature when she invited me to come inside and use their bathroom. I would never have asked, but she was very kind to offer and I took her up on the offer.
So, as I often do in these blog posts, I asked myself: "What did I learn this week?"
I learned that I am brave enough to knock on someone's door and ask permission to paint their barn. I realized that the worst that could happen (hopefully) was that they would say no and I would just leave. You also have to use your judgement and trust your gut feelings about the place before you knock on the door.
Don't drink too much before you go out plein-air painting unless you know where the nearest bathroom is. You could take a port-a-potty, but if you're in the middle of a pasture, that is not too practical.
There are lots of beautiful tin roofs out there. I plan to paint many of them.
Going back and reading my notes from plein-air workshops and on-line articles was a good reminder of ways to make my plein air paintings better. (in case you don't know what plein air is, it's just a French term for painting outside.) There are many articles and YouTube videos out there that can give you good information about plein air painting so I won't go into them all. If you just Google "guidelines for plein air painting" you will find plenty. I asked a few people, including my art class instructor, about their suggestions.
Here are some good ones:
Always use a view finder and make thumbnail sketches ( I also use my phone to take a photo of the scene and edit it to create a composition I like from the photos. Then I adjust it to suit my needs.) Painting outdoors can be overwhelming and I find it useful to use a tool to isolate the main focal point(s) and create a good composition for a painting.
Be careful where you set up to paint. Go to a public place, ask permission to paint on private land, or go with a group if you can. There are groups you can find on an app called "meetup".
If the people who own the place where you want to paint are not home, leave a business card in their door with a note asking them for permission to paint on their property and request that they contact you via email, text or phone if it's ok. Respect "no trespassing" or "no soliciting" signs.
Be brave and reach out to people to ask permission. You might be surprised about how lovely people can be if you show you are courteous and trustworthy.
Give yourself permission to "edit" the scene you are painting. When I got back to my studio and looked at the composition of the paintings, I decided they needed a few extra touches that were not in the actual scene. Fences and roads were moved, a foot path was added, and a couple of extra hay bales balanced the composition. In the end, my edits made the paintings better.
The bottom line is just GO! Getting out there is the best way to get started. I have been out with a group a few times but reviewing my notes from workshops, classes and books I've read about composition, methods of work, and guidelines for finding a place, setting up and creating a balanced composition served as a great reminder. Painting outdoors is a glorious experience! Photographs compress the colors and the light. Even trying to accurately show the colors in the paintings I post is a challenge. It's amazing the difference in my paintings when I have used my own perceptions of the scene and my imagination to make the color and composition more interesting, rather than painting straight from a photograph. I will be doing this a lot more this spring! See images below of the site, Charlie the dog, and a painting of the barn (still wet so will finish the trees in the studio when the paint dries a bit. ). Hopefully next week, I will the finished versions of both paintings I did and pictures of my newly-lit and re-organized studio. Have a great week!