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!

Magic at Mounds

My visit to Mounds State Park last Saturday was full of sunshine, painting, and chats about art with new park friends. One of the smallest parks in the Indiana state park system, Mounds isn’t as well known as some of its larger and more scenic counterparts, but the mysterious earthworks resting amid wooded trails and the White River, as well as the historic Bronnenberg House, make a visit to the Mounds worthwhile.

This 290-acre park features 10 unique earthworks built by prehistoric Indians known as the Adena-Hopewell people. The largest earthwork, the Great Mound, is believed to have been constructed around 160 B.C. Archaeological surveys indicate the mounds were used as gathering places for religious ceremonies, from where astronomical alignments like the summer and winter solstices can be viewed.

The Federal-style Bronnenberg House is a lasting reminder of early settlers who recognized the uniqueness of this area and protected the earthworks from looters and farming practices. Despite the construction of an amusement park and railroad in the early 1900s, the Bronnenberg family actively fought to preserve the mounds. Along with the house, the prehistoric earthworks became part of the state park in 1930. The fully-restored brick structure seen today was originally built around 1850 and is open for tours.

Throughout the day over 85 visitors stopped or strolled by, and I had the pleasure of creating art at the Great Mound in the morning with two new friends who brought their own art supplies ready to draw! In the afternoon, 20 kids and adults took me up on my challenge to try out the waterbrushes and watercolor field kits. After attending a birthday party celebrating the Centennial of the Indiana state parks, we stuck around for drumming and dance by the Miami Nation of Indiana that took place inside the Great Mound this year.

Like the Bronnenberg’s, I recognize the uniqueness of this particular park and its earthworks. Painting in this ancient place fills me with peace and a sacred sense of wonder. Often overlooked despite its close proximity to Indianapolis and I-69, I chose this particular park to bring attention to its beauty and special charm, grateful to those who protected and preserved the Mounds’ special magic over the years.