10 Ways I Might Survive the Winter Without Plein Air Painting

fall scene with sunlit path
This is my first studio painting on the indoor season. 11 x 14 oil on canvas

Summer is over and fall is getting colder. The facts are the facts. Most of us don’t go out to paint when the temperature is below 50o. For some of us there is a narrow band of comfort between 60o and 75o. (You know who you are!)

I have cold weather gear. I walk my dog every day all winter. I just don’t paint outside in that kind of weather. I’ve tried , but it never ends well.

Dog in front of snow covered pine tree
Daily walks with Lucy in any kind of weather

One April I entered the Dublin Area Art League plein air competition. The day’s high was 48o. The sun was shining when I left my house but that was the last I saw of it all day. It’s one thing to be cold and moving , but standing in one place on cold ground is not fun. Frozen feet, frozen brain, lousy painting. That was the worst piece I ever turned in for a competition. The only consolation was a hot cup of soup afterwards.

My friend Marianne is an intrepid plein air painter. She paints in the snow and I asked if I could go with her some time. We decided the temperature needed to be in the 30’s so the paint didn’t gum up. Ideally it would be a day with a little sun. Do you know how many days we have like that in Ohio??? Not many. So one day when we had a light coating of snow, we decided to drive about 40 miles north in hopes of enchanted rural scenes. Alas, the farther we went, the less snow there was. Also alas, my easel had a wonky leg. We found a nice little scene, but it was hard to paint while holding up my easel, keeping blowing snow out of my eyes, and trying to ignore the cold. Not good.

This spring and summer getting outside to paint and socialize made all the other 2020 craziness bearable. I met friends at least once a week. We’d paint for a few hours and then lunch. Once the mornings got cooler in the fall, we flipped the process with lunch first and then painting. That lasted a few weeks.

Creekside Park in Gahanna, October 2020

Now the fall color is waning. The coming weeks will get colder and grayer. Even when you get a warm day, scenes will be bleak. How are we going to cope? With the pandemic we’ll each have to toil away in isolation, touching base mostly online. We may come out of our dens for a walk in the brisk air when we can.

I know I still need to give the brushes a workout or regress in my skills over winter. Here are the options as I see them:

  1. Use some plein air paintings as studies for studio paintings. Maybe. Not really excited by that idea.
  2. Paint from photos. I have scads of photos that could be sources for paintings. I need to get better at cropping and editing for better composition. I can see that happening after I spend a copious amount of time choosing a photo.
  3. Set up still life arrangements to paint from life indoors. Nope. Not happening. Not a fan of still life.
  4. Study. Copy paintings by the master’s just for practice. Sean Wang taught a class where he had us do that – quick small studies and then one or two larger ones. I might play with that a bit. Couldn’t hurt
  5. Take an online class. The right kind of class could strengthen skills and be inspiring. I need one with some accountability, not a DIY tutorial.
  6. Switch to another medium; maybe do some watercolor paintings or colored pencil.
  7. Go abstract. Take a scene and boil it down to basics. Then switch up the colors or placement of elements. Might be fun.
  8. Make greeting cards. Geometrics, prints, watercolors, colored pencil, and mixed media all make nice cards. I’m never sure if this is legit creative work or just a cop-out thing to do instead of “real painting.”
  9. Try to paint portraits. I’ve dabbled with this a bit. The results look human at least, but not necessarily like the person I’m trying to paint.
  10. Curl up with a blanket and You Tube painting videos. I might accidentally learn something, but chances are better if I’m actually doing something. Not a good option, but very tempting.

The bottom line is to just move some paint around with a goal in mind. No matter what I choose to do this winter, it will never take the place of fresh air, friends and lunch in the park.

Creative Timing

A work that in progress

I am grateful for every new idea that comes to me. Sometimes it’s an inspiration for a new painting or maybe a party game when I’m in charge of entertainment for a bash. (Farm Animal Price is Right was a big hit!) I may come up with a way to solve a practical problem or a concept for a blog post. I love to be creative but I just can’t control when inspiration will occur.

The best way to be inspired is to start working. The more I work on a project, the more ideas I get. There’s nothing like jumping right into the mess of a project to see new pathways or solutions. If you’re stuck on a project just take one little micro-mini step and you may be on your way to something better than you originally imagined. Turn it upside down and backward to see it in a new light.

This painting was commissioned to preserve family memories of a special place.

Some good ideas come while I’m walking the dog in the morning and letting my mind wander. I never listen to music or podcasts while I’m walking. I like natural sounds and silence. Whatever concerns are top of mind usually get examined again and sometimes new little ideas bubble up. This is great because I have all day to think them over. Ideas that pop into my brain in the daylight are usually workable.

I get good ideas at church. I admit that my mind wanders but I choose to think it’s making space for divine inspiration. Any idea that pops into my brain at church gets taken very seriously.

I do a good bit of driving so that’s another opportunity for the mind to travel to new territory. If I go down a mental rabbit hole, I can work on an idea for quite a while and still pay attention to traffic. (Although I may not realize how far I’ve traveled.) The only drawback is that I can’t write and dictating to my phone is too distracting. So I’ve got to hold that thought awhile – not so convenient.

The worst time for me to get ideas is when my head hits the pillow. When that happens I know I’ll be noodling it around for a long time and I won’t be able to shut down the mental processor and get some sleep. I’ll think and struggle and toss and turn.

Inspiration lights up my brain and shoots off in all kinds of “what-if” directions. I think of the practical side of how to make it work and how to add razzle dazzle. The idea develops and morphs and coagulates.

I stay from You Tube DIY videos late at night. I know that my brain will be DIYing for hours. Ideas that involve images are challenging enough but ideas that involve words are the worst! I’m afraid I’ll lose them so I keep reviewing them until I finally get up and write them down.

I’ve learned over time that the only way to get relief is to get up and do a brain dump onto paper and hope that it will make sense in the morning. Usually it just needs more work, but sometimes the idea is just too crazy when held up to the light of day.

Early stages of a quilt on my design wall

I adore creativity. It gives me energy. It’s a high that spills over even into mundane chores. I can conquer any boring task when I have an exciting new project to plan out. I lose track of time and enjoy the ride.

Creativity shows up when it wants to and it’s our job to make the most of it.

Competition en Plein Air

I’m glad the Ohio Plein Air Competition was in Columbus this year because I wanted a chance to hang out with the experienced painters who do it every year. They produce amazing paintings over the course of two and a half days. I had no illusions about my skill level compared to the pros, but I was up for the challenge.

The rules stated that the painting must be completed during the time of the competition – September 24 – 27 and be painted at least 95% en plein air (no studio work or painting from photos). Painters were given a list of potential painting locations but all of Franklin County was within the boundaries.

I begin scouting locations. I had to check a county map because I live very close to the Licking County line. I’ve painted so much at Inniswood Metro Garden and Franklin Park Conservatory and it would have made loads of sense to go back to familiar scenes but I wanted to do a more ambitious subject and stick close to home. I knew lots of people would choose German Village, but Reynoldsburg has some spots that are very charming as well.

Thursday, September 24 from 4-6pm was the initial sign-in at the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD) to get your canvas, boards or paper stamped on the back. That assures that the painting was produced during the competition time frame. I showed up with plenty of boards in case I got ambitious or decided to start over on one.

Canvas board which have been stamped for competition
Ready to roll!

That afternoon I made it back to Reynoldsburg and set up around five. The house that I wanted to paint caught the western sun so its stone turned a golden color. I knew it had to be a late afternoon painting, but there was no way I could get it done in one short evening.

Yellow two-story house.
This was as far as I got before the light changed and the shadows on the side of the building got less interesting.

On Friday morning I had my eye on a spot within walking distance. The zinnias had been calling me for the last month, but the best composition would be the convergence of roof angles for three houses. I had a great spot in the shade and good morning light. A few neighbors stopped to talk and one took my picture.

That afternoon I went back to finish the stone house. There’s a lot of traffic on Lancaster Avenue, but not too many pedestrians. I was able to work without much interruption. The trickiest part was getting the right amount of detail.

On Saturday the Columbus Dispatch Metro Section had a nice feature article about the OPAS painters who went out Thursday night to paint a nocturne on the streets of German Village. They are much more intrepid than I am. I’m a morning person so that wasn’t an option I had really considered. As it turned out I don’t remember any of the nocturnes being entered in the competition

By Saturday morning I saw where I needed to refine the neighborhood picture so I headed up the street for an hour or so. My neighbor, Allen, held off cutting stone pavers for his patio until I was finished. I found out that he is also a painter and didn’t want me to have to worry about dust on my painting. .

Then I headed back to Lancaster Avenue to catch the morning sun on a house facing east. It was another beautiful morning and a most encouraging young mother pushing a stroller complimented my work as she passed several times. I loved the tree and the wrap-around porch but it was hard to get the grays right without looking kind of dreary.

By Saturday afternoon I was all painted out. I thought about doing one more but I just didn’t have the energy so I picnicked with painting friends and got everything ready for the grand finale on Sunday.

Painters gathering for judging
Painters gathered on the lawn of CCAD to locate their assigned spot and set up an easel with their competition painting.

Sunday morning was just as beautiful as each day of the competition had been. About 40 painters chose their best work to frame and be judged. While the judging was taking place, those who wanted to, could enter the “Quick Draw.” They had two hours to go out and paint another painting and return with it framed. They returned with some amazing urban scenes. I went up to the cathedral for Mass instead.

The public was invited to a wet paint sale from noon till two. Awards were announced at one o-clock. . Usually judging is done by a painter who conducts a workshop the next week, but that didn’t work with the pandemic. This year the judges were all affiliated with local galleries. They had a tough job. There were so many beautiful paintings with top talent from the local area and the state.

Award winners with their paintings

As you may notice I wasn’t in the winners’ circle. Oh well, more reason to keep painting and improving my skills for next year.