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!

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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!

The First House Call

Here's a happy group of new friends with their unique masterpieces.

Here’s a happy group of new friends with their unique masterpieces.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of helping a friend launch her first “Art Party” complete with delicious appetizers and festive drinks, and a sunny theme to light up the dark winter days of January. Between the two of us, we gathered together canvases, paints, paper, pens and possibilities. My friend printed out various depictions of the sun, and I provided examples and encouragement.

Many of the ladies invited had never met, and only had my friend in common, but quickly became acquainted as they sipped, snacked and created throughout the evening. There is something reassuring and convivial about working in a group, especially when you can do your own thing as opposed to following the instructor to produce the same picture. I enjoyed watching each guest pick their own supplies and colors, and express themselves in a unique way.

All in all, my friend and I considered the evening a great success, with many leaving with their artworks vowing to continue creating art on their own. I hope to make more of these house calls in the future, especially during the cold months when we all need some cheer and camaraderie while exploring our creativity.

Living Pictures

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Work in progress of the wetlands at Indiana Dunes State Park. Pastel on gesso board 9″ x 12″

As 2016 draws to a close, I’m waiting for the beginning of a new year surrounded by friendly evidence of a creative venture that exceeded my wildest dreams. Every one of these pieces that crowds my table holds pleasant memories of friends and beautiful natural places whose essence lies waiting to be experienced and captured. I learned to move beyond my comfort zone, to show up despite the fear, to stop judging, to encourage others to participate, and to enjoy the process regardless of the product.

The best part of all is that I can still live these experiences through photos and unfinished paintings that will carry me throughout the grey winter months in my warm studio. Better yet, there’s a new grant and more memories to be made in 2017.

Thank you to all who’ve followed along on this journey, and a happy New Year!

Falling Water

Painting at a safe distance with pastels on an 8 x 10" Ampersand pastelboard.

Painting at a safe distance with pastels on an 8 x 10″ Ampersand pastelboard.

During my painting events in state parks this year, visitors kept recommending that I visit Cataract Falls State Recreational Area, an easy drive from Indianapolis on I-70 near Cloverdale, Indiana. Whenever I mentioned my love of painting water in its many forms, the answer was often, “Oh then, you need to paint Cataract Falls. They’re the best in Indiana!” After my visit earlier this month on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, I can tell you that those claims aren’t exaggerated.

A robust Mill Creek feeds the upper and lower sets of waterfalls which run over two ridges of pre-glacial bedrock, boasting the greatest volume of water (and sound) of any waterfall in the state. Both upper and lower falls provide plenty of good views for painting, but I settled on a spot at the edge of the ravine below the upper falls, apart from the viewing platforms and steady stream of foot traffic. There is also a historic red covered bridge that crosses the creek nearby, featuring a unique lattice-pattern truss system. I hope to paint it and the lower falls when I return.

The irony is that my family and I used to live just up the road years ago, and never knew about this hidden treasure. Now that we have been captured by its charms, we will definitely come back to Cataract Falls in the future.