Return to Spring Mill

As the dust settles from my third application for another Arts in the Parks grant in 2018, I’ve returned to the studio to avoid an odd post-Labor Day heat wave, and prepare for another September visit to Spring Mill. Hard to believe exactly a year has passed since my first painting trip down to Mitchell, Indiana, the birthplace of astronaut Gus Grissom and home to one of Indiana’s best known state parks.

I’ll be bringing with me completed artwork from last year’s visit, including an 8″ x 10″ oil painting of the wooded bank near the entrance to Twin Caves. I found a great spot to set up and visit with a crowd of park guests waiting for their boat ride into the caves the morning of my program last year. And I was able to get a good start on this view of fallen logs left to decay, creating a natural environment for all sorts of plant and animal life. Back at home, I’ve enjoyed playing with the differences between what is above and below the waterline, helped by the surface refraction of light and shadow.

The afternoon rain showers that day forced me to seek shelter in a breezeway between log cabins while working with a pastel of the three-story limestone grist mill that is the centerpiece of Spring Mill’s pioneer village. Since pastels and precipitation don’t mix (unless you want an accidental watercolor) I had to make some creative choices about omitting details such as the unfortunately placed little tree in the foreground. No matter, I was able to take some better photos when the rain ended that helped me fill in details later and finish this 5″ x 7″ pastel on sanded paper in the studio.

A year later, I’m preparing to paint the grist mill again, this time with oils. I confess that I’m not particularly confident about my skills in rendering buildings, especially using brushes since I have much more experience with drawing. And I find that trees and organic natural forms are much more forgiving than linear edges and the dreaded two-point perspective. I prefer to eyeball and claim near-sighted impressionism as my inspiration.

Last year, I promised to return to Spring Mill in honor of the bicentennial of the grist mill, begun in 1817, with several revisions throughout the years. I particularly admire the stone pillars of the flume that transports water to power the mill wheel from cave springs up the hill. Perhaps I’ll find a shady spot underneath those pillars since, unlike last year, the day promises to be nothing but sun in the upper 80s. But I’m grateful to be able to take these challenges in stride because I’m aware that life, as in painting, is made more interesting in its contrasts.

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!