Painting at Prophetstown

My visit to Indiana’s newest state park this month challenged me to try out alternative equipment in new locations that differed from my typical schedule. Prophetstown’s unique blend of prairie, wetland and woods honors the memory of important Native American history while providing the perfect setting for painting and interaction. As if that wasn’t enough, this new state park also features several picnic areas, bike trails, an aquatic center, extensive campground and a 1920s small-scale working farm.

Established in 2004, the park sits at the edge of what was originally a tallgrass prairie, with areas of open oak woodlands. Glaciers passed across the park at least three times, creating the landscape that I was lucky to paint during my visit. My morning painting demonstration was located at an observation deck overlooking the wetlands and floodplain where the Tippecanoe River meets the Wabash. Harrison Creek flows  close to the platform from a pond and fen created by those same glaciers, and was running high that morning from all the recent rains.

For the first time since I began painting in the parks I arrived without the tripod that attaches to my paintbox, reenforcing the need for a packing list (that I have already written upon return). Luckily,  I was able to use my 4-foot folding table set to its highest height, and could spread out the paintbrushes, paint palette and my water container on a stable surface. When I had to pack up and retreat to the car for a brief rain shower, I was able to leave the table set up since it was waterproof. I returned to continue work on the oil painting I’d started while talking to nine visitors and observed many shorebirds and waterfowl, including great blue herons and kingfishers.

After lunch, I set up another painting demonstration under the shade shelter at the Native American Village located in the restored prairie near the visitors center. The collection of structures that includes a medicine lodge, council house and chief’s cabin replicates a settlement established by Tecumseh, who was Shawnee, and his brother Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) in 1808 to stop the European westward settlement.

Forced from his homelands in Ohio, Tecumseh formed an alliance with the Ojibwe, Delaware, Kickapoo, Miami, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Wea, Wyandot, Winnebago, Fox, Sac, Creek and Menominee, hoping to repel the advance of European settlement. They congregated at Prophetstown, and heard The Prophet speak. While Tecumseh was away recruiting more support, The Prophet decided to strike first in the early morning hours of Nov. 7, 1811, where he engaged William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory,  and his 1,200 troops in the Battle of Tippecanoe that lasted two hours. Defeated, the villagers retreated to Wildcat Creek while Harrison’s men burned Prophetstown to the ground.

Pine branches layering the roof of the shelter provided marvelous shade while I began a pastel of the granary and talked to 13 visitors that hot afternoon. Two children and two adults tried out my watercolor brushes, paints, pencils and crayons along with two members of the DNR staff. The naturalists also provided pokeweed berry juice that was used as a dye by the indigenous people, and became an excellent paint for my painting activity. I was amazed by its color and consistency, and thoroughly appreciated how the poke berries blended in perfectly with the watercolor paints.

After an early dinner at a local restaurant in the town of Battle Ground and a tour of the battlefield along Burnett’s Creek where The Prophet’s warriors met Harrison’s troops, I returned to Prophetstown for an evening painting program at the campground next to the shower house. The head interpretive naturalist, Angie Manuel, not only introduced me as part of Indiana’s Arts in the Parks and Historic Sites with a brief background of the grant program, but she brought lots of natural objects and artifacts found on the park grounds for participants to paint.

We had a great turnout with 30 campers showing up for the presentation, and 26 kids and adults participating in the painting activity. All told, I engaged with nearly 50 people throughout the day at Prophetstown, and learned so much myself about the history of the park and the culture of the Native Americans who maintained the prairie landscape for hunting and gathering. And if you visit this beautiful park, be sure to stop by the stone circle located in the northeast corner of the park near the observation deck and basketball court, which includes a number of stones bearing plaques representing the known Native American tribes that lived at Prophetstown.

Making Waves at Indiana Dunes.

As temps finally flirt with the upper 90s outside, I have returned to the air-conditioned studio to finish my series of paintings begun during last year’s Arts in the Parks grant. I’m taking up where I left off after my midpoint post back in April (!) of this year highlighting paintings from last July’s Turkey Run State Park. By August, I was hiking the sandy trails and beaches of Indiana’s own sand dunes after a powerful storm on Saturday made me wait until the following day to ply my brush and pastel sticks.

My first stop on that Sunday morning was a quiet set up under the bird observation tower at the end of the beach, which gave some excellent shade and shelter from the winds. I enjoyed using water-mixable oils to capture the changing cloud cover that rolled through the area. Breaks of sunlight and shifting winds made the textures on Lake Michigan’s surface and the direction of the waves a challenge to catch in time. Since visitor traffic to the tower was intermittent, I had plenty of opportunities to try different techniques while I noted all the colors of the lake, from stormy blues to iridescent greens to delicate pinks and lavenders.

In the afternoon, I tried out a new surface for my pastel painting by using an Ampersand pastelbord, which is a clay and gesso coated hardboard panel with a granular marble dust finish comparable to a sanded pastel paper. This particular 9″ X 12″ sample was tinted dark grey which alleviated the dreaded “white canvas” syndrome and brought out bright pastel tones. My subject was found in the wetlands running behind the park’s grassy dunes with a very wide and accessible boardwalk overlooking a particularly enticing bend in the ribbon of contrasting reddish-brown water that wound through the green button-bush marsh.

The rough texture of the board held my soft pastels well, with very little dust waste. Plus, the panel was easy to clip onto my easel, and unlike my Wallis paper which requires taping to a sturdy piece of foam board, it was ready to go when I needed it. My biggest challenge was making a slit to take off the plastic wrap. (A visitor who stopped by to watch suggested using one of my house keys, and it worked!) My only complaint about the 9 x 12 size is that getting a good start can be difficult when you’re busy talking to a steady stream of folks strolling along the boardwalk between the campgrounds and beach. I had to finish at home, and as you can see, it took many months to bring this rather impressionistic painting to a point where I was satisfied that I’d captured the strong afternoon light.

In addition, I’m including a pre-event acrylic painting from an earlier reconnaissance visit to the park’s Devil’s Slide, an extremely vertical part of the hiking trail with some interesting sand patterns that I thought would be fun to paint. Since I wasn’t located on the beach during my Arts in the Parks demonstrations, this was a good way to practice a “beach-y” scene for one of my landscape experiences.

As to whether I’ll keep any of these paintings or reuse the panels, I’ll add that Ampersand’s pastelbord requires special framing with glass and spacers under the mat, or fixative that can change the colors considerably. Another option would be to wash the pastels off the panel for a fresh start, instead of having to paint over with white paint or gesso like you do with oils and acrylics.  And, Ampersand says I can try oils or acrylic on their boards for interesting effects, as well. Stay tuned!

A Perfect Day at Potato Creek

Despite the ominous weather forecast, I couldn’t have ordered up a more perfect day at Potato Creek State Park, located just south of South Bend near North Liberty, Indiana. Named after the potato-like roots that were once collected by Native Americans along the creek banks, Potato Creek feeds into Worster Lake, a man-made reservoir begun in the 1930s by local conservationist Darcey Worster that covers 327 acres of the park’s six square miles. Dedicated in 1977, the park’s management programs are dedicated to restoring and maintaining Potato Creek’s unique natural areas and wetlands.

I began my visit to Potato Creek on Trail 3 overlooking a marshy inlet of Worster Lake directly across from the swimming beach. While setting up my easel to the bass tones of bullfrogs, I noted the lushness in the vegetation and trees that contrasted so well with the sculptural starkness of the decaying trunks and logs. I decided to try out an 8 x 10-inch clay panel using my water-mixable oils for the morning demonstration and engaged with six visitors, including one who arrived with art supplies prepared to join me in capturing the scene.  It was a pleasure to have some artistic company and discover the same scenery through another’s interpretation.

Around noon, it was time to pack up and head toward the nature center on the other side of Worster Lake which took us through some meadows and prairie decked out in summer’s full glory. I was impressed with the size of this state park and the variety of recreational activities that its topography allows. I was informed that this particular park is a frequent location for triathlons and other outdoor challenges. As well as an extensive campground, the park offers facilities and areas for hiking, picnicking, swimming, boating, horseback riding and bike riding.

As the good weather held on, I was able to set up the hands-on watercolor activity outside in front of the nature center, where over 100 park visitors stopped by my art table, and a record 66 kids and adults tried out my waterbrushes, crayons, colored pencils and micron pens. Luckily, I didn’t run out of supplies while people spread out in all directions, including some who took advantage of the amazing exhibits inside the nature center to use as painting subjects and came back with their own renditions of turtles, owls, reptiles and even an osprey!

Several of the artists who visited me in the morning stopped by to try out my painting materials, and a homeschool family that shared my interests in art followed me to my next stop for the afternoon at the swimming beach. We settled down in a shady spot in the lawn under the trees overlooking the beach and had a marvelous discussion about various forms of art and techniques. Amazingly, the predicted violent thunderstorms stayed away as I visited with 27 park guests who were out enjoying the swimming, volleyball, hiking and bike trails. I used a regular canvas panel with oils to capture a beautiful scene on the lake, complete with a sailboat, kayaks and the bright spots of color from swimsuits and beach balls.

As we headed south in the light of a gorgeous sunset at the end of the day, I was very grateful that the weather forecasters were wrong for once, and I know that the nearly 150 park visitors I met that day were, too. As always, many thanks to the DNR staff who advertised and made me feel welcome, and the Indiana Arts Commission for helping to make painting in the parks possible.

Hunting for Harmonie

Located in the very southern “toe” of Indiana near the historic utopian community at New Harmony, Harmonie State Park was my first stop in this year’s quest to visit six of the most recent additions to Indiana’s park system. Established in 1966, Harmonie’s 3,465 acres border Illinois and the Wabash River on its way to a rendezvous with the Ohio. With its river views, olympic-size pool, multiple picnic areas and 200-site campground, Harmonie provides plenty of outdoor entertainment.

Due to heavy rains and flooding, my original date for visiting had to be pushed back a week until the flood waters receded. The park had only been open for two days when I arrived on Saturday morning, May 20th during a very active thunderstorm. Luckily, the storm moved through quickly and I was able to venture down to the dock of the Little Harmonie Pond, taking only my watercolor kit, a sketchbook and my camp chair just in case there was more rain on the way.

I quickly started working on a view of the pond, including one of the beautiful blue benches that reflected so well in the still water. Before long, a group of boy scouts and their leaders from nearby Evansville appeared with fishing gear and poles to try their luck at the pond. I enjoyed watching the young fishermen cast their lines and listened to their friendly banter while waiting for a bite. I was able to get a good start on the painting by the time I was scheduled to head over to the Nature Center.

The sun was just beginning to peek out while I set up for the watercolor painting activity under some shade trees next to the building. Facing the campgrounds, I was able to entice young and old alike to grab a paint set, waterbrush and an assortment of Inktense pencils, Micron pens and (new this year) watercolor crayons. Visitors were able to sit at several brand-new picnic tables nearby and spend a leisurely hour or so painting and chatting with friends and family while listening to the sounds of nature surrounding them. Around fifteen children and grownups stopped by to paint and let me take their photos while proudly displaying their artwork.

For the afternoon demonstration, I set up along the Wabash River, which was still very high and had overflowed its banks just a few days earlier. In fact, the spot I’d chosen to place my easel had clearly been underwater at some point. But, with a good coating of bug spray, I was blocking out color in no time under some lovely shade trees overlooking a scenic stretch of the river.

Just in time too, because I was placed at the river for a reason. For the first time ever, I was actually part of photo scavenger hunt. Participants had to find the artist and take a picture with me and my painting as part of a long list of clues. Not only was this an excellent way to see the park and learn about all the features you might otherwise miss, but I had the opportunity to interact with visitors and show them some plein air painting in action. Scavenger hunters had a chance to compare what I was painting and note my use of colors you wouldn’t expect. For instance, instead of brown or blue water, the surface of the river had a pink glow in the afternoon light that day, and everyone could really see that.

All totaled, I visited with about 55 guests for my first park, many of them braving the damp conditions to camp that weekend. Considering that half the state had canceled all kinds of plans for the weekend because of the wet weather, I call that a success!

Pastel Pursuits at Turkey Run

The next stop in the countdown to my 2017 visits to Indiana’s state parks goes back to a beautiful day in July at the unique Turkey Run State Park. Easily the most visited state park in Indiana, I spent a productive morning at the busiest spot at Turkey Run — the suspension bridge over Sugar Creek. You couldn’t ask for a better position to engage the public. I broke all attendance records for the morning alone!

In order to visit most of the dramatic cliffs and canyons in the park, you must cross the creek over a bridge that does move a bit depending on the wind and traffic. I set up for the morning in the cool shade of a convenient clearing in view of everyone hiking up and down the steps of the mossy concrete support for the cables that hold up the foot bridge. Even with many pauses to chat with visitors at this visible spot, I made enough progress on my painting that people could recognize what I was working on.

I chose to paint with pastels that morning, and had already prepared a piece of sanded 8″ x 10″ Wallis pastel paper secured with white artist tape to a piece of foam board. I’m able to clip this set up to the easel of my pochade box the same way I do my panels for oil painting. That way when I’m finished and need to move on, I can carry the pastel clipped to the outside of the box, or place it in one of the plastic bins I bring along to protect the fragile pastels from the elements and keep everything else away from the dust.

I use several brands of soft or chalk pastels, although I’ll be experimenting with oil pastels in 2017. I have used the firmer Prismacolor NuPastel sticks since college, and prefer them for crisper edges and a wide variety of colors at a reasonable price. I also use Derwent pastel pencils for clean, sharp lines and details. A few years ago a painting teacher at my local art center introduced me to Rembrandt pastels, which are softer and pricier. After enjoying the depth of color I’ve achieved with these, I finally took the plunge and bought a few of the very expensive Sennelier soft pastels in buttery, darker shades. I’ve learned the hard way that you have to pay big bucks for those very necessary dark shades that pop the lighter colors and add depth to your painting.

After taking shelter under the nature center’s covered porch for a big thunderstorm, I hauled only the basics (my pochade box and a camp chair) down the many steps to the bottom of Turkey Run Canyon. Perched on the edge of the swollen creek, I began an oil painting on a 9″ x 12″ panel while hikers tried to cross over on the few remaining rocks jutting out of the water. Few made it across without getting their feet wet. Meanwhile, I tried to replicate the beautiful saturated colors left by the rains as the sun’s rays hit all the water particles suspended in the air, turning them to diamonds.

Neither photo nor painting could do justice to the enchanting scene I hoped to capture that afternoon. I hope to remember it always, and now have a completed painting to help jog my memory. I particularly enjoyed painting all the warm colors found in the water, pebbles and sand as complements to the cool blues and purples of the canyon walls and woods.

Keep an eye out for a change of pace and completely different scenery when I head up to the sand dunes of Lake Michigan for my next installment. Until then, happy creating!

Painting Matters at Mounds

With one successful park program under my belt last May, I began June’s visit to Mounds State Park near Anderson, Indiana, with a little more confidence, boosted even more by the two lovely ladies who were waiting to draw with me that morning. The park naturalist had done a great job advertising the Paints in the Parks event, and they had brought along pencils and paper to capture the Great Mound with me for a pleasant few hours.

The weather was sunny and mild that day, maybe the best of all the park visits last year. I found a good spot with a little shade near the trail leading to the Great Mound’s entrance, where I could talk to visitors strolling by as I took advantage of the strong morning light and shadows. Faced with the largest of the earthworks created by a group of prehistoric people, I could only capture a portion of the mound, reenforcing the plein air painter’s need for framing and omission in the composition of a painting.

I’m pleased to report that the Great Mound’s distinctive shape topped by tall trees and surrounded by a rustic rail fence prompted park guests during subsequent events to immediately recognize the subject whenever they saw this painting on display. Considering that these remarkable landmarks had to survive the construction of an amusement park on top of them in the early 20th Century, I’m very lucky to still be able to capture the spirit of this sacred site.

The above glimpse of my palette gives me the perfect opportunity to introduce my choice of paint and colors. A friend who is an accomplished art teacher and oil painter gave me a beginner box of Artisan Water Mixable Oils made by Winsor & Newton. Since I began my training as an acrylic painter and knew nothing about oils, I was eager to try an alternative to the traditional thinners and mixes, and use water for mixing and clean up. I supplemented with tubes of Duo Aqua Oil by Holbein, which are very creamy and easy to use. My color palette includes the usual basics like Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and Titanium White. But I also like to include Dioxazine Violet, Raw Umber, Cadmium Orange, Cobalt Blue and Prussian Blue.

And then there are the greens. Because you need to work fast in plein air, I prefer to go the “lazy” route of pre-mixed greens (suddenly I have a hankering for salad), which include Sap Green, Light Cadmium Green, Phthalo Green and Terre Verte. As you can see, that makes for quite a few colors lined up, so it’s helpful to have them already squeezed out before you head out to paint. I use a covered palette with a piece of palette paper cut to fit in the bottom for easy cleanup. This arrangement has worked for me, but there’s still some waste despite the small amounts. In 2017 I hope to try a more limited palette that will control the relationship between color groups and emphasize values better.

Around lunchtime I packed up the oils and moved down the trail to the Bronnenberg house, pioneer residence to one of the first settlers in the area. I will admit that buildings, straight edges and perspective are not my forte; give me a twisted tree trunk or winding stone-strewn creek any day. With that in mind, I had already gotten a good start on a pastel of the historic site in my home studio based on photos from a previous visit. I knew the tiny details of countless mullioned window panes would be my undoing on a rickety easel along the breezy and uneven trail. Some work is best done flat on a table.

What was left was mostly what I enjoy, like filling in plantings and the rail fence in the front yard. My preparation paid off as I continued to greet and chat with a large group on a nature hike, as well as folks touring the house. I even gave a short video interview for a reporter from a local newspaper as I nervously dabbed at my picture with soft pastels. One of my friends from Indianapolis joined me to paint with her watercolors. The sun continued to shine, but wasn’t unbearably hot.

After a couple of hours that went by too quickly, I was ready to pack up and head for the Nature Center to offer my watercolor painting activity and participate in a big birthday party with an enormous sheet cake to help celebrate Indiana’s Bicentennial and the state parks’ Centennial.  More next time about my pastel palette and pastel paper preparation. Until then, help yourself to some cake!

Countdown to the Parks

The grass is greening, tree buds are bursting, geese have returned (well, they never actually left), and warm spring breezes are calling to make art outdoors. I have another Arts in the Parks Grant for 2017, this time in six of the newest state parks throughout Indiana. In preparation, I’m finishing and featuring the paintings from visits last year, one set of park paintings per week until the official kick-off for my Paints in the Parks event the first weekend of May.

This week’s completed works are from my very first 2016 Paints in the Parks event on Memorial Day Weekend last May. I nervously set up my easel and supplies by the edge of Big Clifty at the most popular spot in Clifty Falls State Park near Madison, Indiana. I’d just been informed that a well-known Indiana photographer for Outdoor Indiana magazine was coming to take photos of me painting by the falls.

Working against the clock, I quickly located a good angle, framed the composition in my mind, and chose an appropriately sized panel. By the time photographer Frank Oliver arrived, I had roughly blocked in all areas and was working on details, trying to capture the movement of that rushing water over rocks, all while chatting with park visitors and trail hikers.

When it was time for me to move on to my next spot in the park, I was close to completing the painting, needing only a few touchups when I returned home. This particular one of Big Clifty, of all my 2016 park paintings, is truly a work of plein air, capturing the movement and lighting in that fleeting moment. All because of the threat of being documented with an ugly canvas. Guess I work better under pressure.

In late afternoon, I was set up across the canyon from Big Clifty on a trail that provided a dramatic lookout over the sea of green canopy. Through a distant slit in the leaves you could catch a glimpse of Big Clifty’s distinctive rocky cliffs and falls. By now I was becoming more comfortable engaging with the steady stream of hikers who paused to take a breath after a steep climb out of the canyon. The muggy weather threatened rain all day, but now the heat and humidity were building up for an afternoon thunderstorm, so I was watching the skies closely.

Despite all the moisture, I chose to try my hand at some pastel work while chatting with curious visitors who peered around my easel to see what I was doing. Before the visit, I had prepared a piece of sanded pastel paper, cut to a small standard size and taped to some foam board for stability. That way I could secure the painting surface by clipping it to my pochade paint box like any other canvas. The danger with pastels is always the possibility of knocking costly pastel sticks to the ground and breaking them, but I managed to keep them steady for a quick impression of the falls before the skies finally opened up. I then took the work in progress home to finish in drier conditions.

I find that I enjoy producing several versions of the same subject using different mediums. The chance to introduce to the public a variety of ways to paint and make art is worth hauling so many supplies into the state parks and up rugged trails. The countdown continues next week, so stay tuned for another set of finished paintings from last June. Until then, happy creating!