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!

Drama at the Dunes


My good luck with weather finally came to an end at the fourth park on my Paints in the Parks schedule this year. Saturday began with ominous forecasts and strong winds in advance of a cold front bringing severe storms to the  Chicago area first, and then to Indiana Dunes State Park, located about 50 miles east and surrounded by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Fortunately, I usually book Sundays as possible rain dates and in this case I was so glad I did!

My first stop Sunday morning under dramatic skies was the bird observation platform with views of the Dunes Prairie Nature Preserve and some of the three miles of beach along Lake Michigan’s southern shore. I enjoyed capturing shifting cloud formations that determined what colors appeared on the lake’s surface. A stiff northern breeze even worked up some whitecaps for me to practice painting, although the rough water and high tide that day ruled out swimming, much to the Sunday beachgoers’ disappointment.

Midday was spent at the Nature Center where nature hikes, beach yoga, shipwreck stories and a bird watercolor workshop were among the many activities featured at this busy state park that encompasses over 1500 acres of beach, sand dunes, black oak forest, marsh and wooded wetlands. A steady stream of adults and children stopped by my table to try out the waterbrushes and special Inktense  watercolor pencils I brought along for an outdoor watercolor activity. Over 20 brave individuals took up my challenge to paint in the park, and some even let me take their picture showing off their wonderful works of art.

I finished off the afternoon working with pastels on pastel board along the boardwalk overlooking a button-bush marsh connecting the beach access to a very busy campground. Overall, I interacted with 70 visitors to the park, many from the Chicago area. I particularly enjoyed meeting quite a few college students relaxing at the Dunes before heading back to school.

While I made good progress on the two works I began that day, I need to come back and paint the other unique habitats and diverse landscapes preserved in this state park established in 1925. In fact, the father of ecology, Henry Cowles, conducted landmark research on the flora and fauna here, putting Indiana Dunes on the map as “the birthplace of ecology.” I hope to return soon, prepared to make the steep climb up some of those “moving” dunes for that dramatic view that’s well worth the effort.