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.

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!

Water Works at Spring Mill

Our battles with weather continued at my fifth painting event in Spring Mill State Park last weekend. Despite a severe thunderstorm watch in the iffy forecast, I decided to take a chance and make the two-hour drive to this beautiful 1,350-acre haven to virgin timber, cave springs, and a restored pioneer village–and I’m so glad I did!

Keeping an eye on the sky, I set up at Twin Caves for my morning painting session, chatting with the fearless visitors waiting for boat rides into the one of two cave openings, hence the location’s name. Even though the day was rapidly becoming warm and muggy, the air dropped twenty degrees by the time you descended many stone steps to the boat dock. The change in temperature was so drastic that my glasses steamed up every time I ascended to the parking lot.

While painting, I also talked with the park staff who take folks into the dark waters of the cave to see rock formations, an endangered species of blind fish, lizards and other creepy crawlies. (Can’t think of anything better for the nature nerd, but nothing worse for those who are claustrophobic, and terrified of watery darkness.) Although I didn’t have time to go myself,  I was assured that it was very safe, and indeed, all who entered came out the day I was there.

For my oil painting that morning, I chose the point where two fallen trees converged in the water, providing a little island of greenery. I made a good start capturing reflections in the water, as well as the perspective of those two logs resting diagonally on the very steep bank, upright but not standing as living trees. Speaking of trees, even though I didn’t paint in Donaldson Woods this trip, on recent visits I have walked in awe through the grove of 300-year-old native trees, protected thanks to the efforts of a Scotsman named George Donaldson who purchased the forest in 1865.

My next stop at noon was outside the Lakeview Activity Center adjacent to recently restored Spring Mill Lake, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part their good work in the 1930s along with shelters, roads, trails and the lovely stone inn at Spring Mill. Under fast-moving skies that fluctuated between cloudy and clear, 15 visitors stopped by to try out my waterbrushes and watercolor kits. For those who weren’t inclined to be artistic that day, there was the option of a competitive round of cornhole right next to the art table. Unfortunately, a sudden deluge cut short our art efforts, but I’m very grateful for the canopy provided by the DNR staff that protected my art supplies and saved my paintings from ruin.

The drizzly afternoon was spent quietly at Spring Mill’s pioneer village, a restored collection of buildings that exemplifies early 1800’s industrial technology, showcased by the beautiful 3-story grist mill built in 1817 to take advantage of a constant source of water from several cave springs that never freeze. I was able to work on my pastel painting of the mill by taking cover in the convenient breezeway (called a “dogtrot”) of the Granny White Cabin where I was still able to engage with twenty or more kids and adults while they strolled the village under umbrellas. While I was busy drawing, there was a sawing demonstration and turning of the mill’s enormous wheel, all moved by the force of rushing spring water from Hamer’s Cave down the stone-pillared flume.

In spite of the weather’s shenanigans, I was able to connect with over 80 park guests on Saturday, which I considered successful enough to treat myself and family to an excellent buffet dinner at the Spring Mill Inn before heading home. And you, too, will find plenty to do at Spring Mill to earn that good night’s rest at the Inn. Besides the attractions I’ve just mentioned, other park features include a pioneer cemetery, an extensive collection of artifacts housed in the mill, numerous caves and wooded trails, and a monument erected by Donaldson to honor the ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Just within the park’s gates, there’s also a monument to Gus Grissom, celebrated astronaut from nearby Mitchell who died along with two other astronauts during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Canaveral. The adjacent museum houses his Gemini III capsule and spacesuit among other items.

Even though I bid farewell for now to the park, I’ll be back next year to continue painting the historic grist mill as part of its 200th birthday celebration. Through changing seasons (and weather), no matter how many times I visit, there’s always something new to discover at Spring Mill State Park.

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.

Outside In

Touch ups to the wetlands at Pokagon State Park.

Touch ups to the wetlands at Pokagon State Park.

Seems like Indiana’s March came in like a lamb, but it’s going out like a very grumpy feline. After a beautiful Easter weekend, I’ve been stuck inside touching up plein air paintings from previous visits to the parks, while reading up on techniques and painting equipment. As rain lashes my apartment windows, I turn up the volume on YouTube videos describing the outdoor adventures of artists in kinder climates.

Oh, the irony. Spring will come in her own time, I suppose. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the comforts and convenience of dry quarters and digital photography to recreate the great outdoors. After all, nothing puts a damper on plein air painting better than rain.