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!