Adventures in Art – Part 2: What I learned plein air sketching on vacation

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This is the second post in an occasional series about rediscovering the joy of a visual art practice. Read Part 1.

These past few weeks, my husband and I took an epic road trip across America to visit some of its most famous national parks. We logged 7,000 miles stopping at 13 parks, 9 of which we also camped in.

Overall we visited 11 states (and several of those, I hadn’t visited before—bringing me up to having visited 49 of the 50 states). We lived on granola bars and camped out of our car. All in all, a not-to-be-forgotten experience.

At the trip outset I determined that I wanted it to be as full of art as it was of outdoor adventure. Along the way, I made quite a few pastel landscapes of locales that we visited. And even though my brain was supposed to be taking a holiday, I learned a few things, too, from this fun outdoor artistic exercise. 

The art below is presented in the order it was created. Do you notice some progression? (I do!)

10) Art supplies don’t come packaged for the trail.

Whatever you need up that mountain, you’ve got to carry up it, too. I learned that packing my pastels and paper for a day hike was as much an exercise in economy as it was of the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.” After toting the whole kit on a long hike, I learned to select 20 or so colors from my set of 96 pastels and package those up for the hike. I also split my papers into two pieces each for ease of fitting into the front zipped flap of a hydration pack and put a small notebook to use as their “carrying case.” The next time I do this, I’ll prep-prepare my supplies with these trail conveniences in mind.

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Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

9) Practice really does improve things.

Amazing when an old adage is right, isn’t it? Comparing my sketches from the beginning of the trip to the end, they clearly improved (at least from my perspective!). I learned something from every sketch that I translated into the next one. Sometimes it was a workflow insight, such as “Finish the mountains completely before you start the next lowest elevation, so you don’t have to go back and fix ‘gaps’ in the color.” Other times it was a color insight, such as, “Bring a layer of blue onto the more distant objects to help show the haze of the sky.” Piece by piece, those insights add up: insights you wouldn’t get if you weren’t doing the work.

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Mesa Verde National Park (cliff dwellings), Colorado

8) If at first you don’t succeed, add more color.

Perfection isn’t possible outdoors, if it ever is at all—especially when you’re coming back to art after a 15-year hiatus. So to say I always loved the product of my plein air efforts would be far less than truthful. Particularly on these sketches, I would often get halfway through the piece and think, “Ew! This is the worst one yet!” There was always a distinct moment where I was tempted to quit work due to the quality of the emerging product. But in each case I forced myself to finish the piece properly. While I wasn’t necessarily ecstatic with every finished piece, the work always got better.

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Arches National Park, Utah

7) The best vistas are often further up the trail.

Sometimes the biggest decision of plein air painting is which vista to sketch. A few times I was tempted to take the first nice view we came to, but I learned to let my Intuition be the guide.  At any point where I saw a candidate landscape, I would stop and close my eyes. A debate would always ensue, with my logical side claiming “But what if I can’t find a better vista further up?” and my Intuition would retort back, “You’ll know it when you see it.” This debate nearly always resulted in me moving on to find greener pastures. And I did. Nine times out of ten I was happy that I’d passed up a good view during the hike for a great view later. And likewise that I had committed to a particular view, after which there was nothing of artistic interest.

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Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

6) Art is a great excuse for a rest.

We did a lot of hiking on this trip: up to 14 miles per day, much of it uphill. This was my first time to take these longer day hikes—some of which bordered on light mountain-climbing. My Eagle Scout husband is practically Paul Bunyan, and though he’s always very kind and obliging about stopping to rest, my personal pride isn’t so obliged to ask him for them. Art, however, offers the perfect excuse. “Hey, honey, there’s the vista I wanted to draw,” I’d say. Boom! Instant rest and snack break.

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Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park, Utah

5) Don’t forget to account for the wind.

If there were one convenience I could wish for at the top of a mountain, it would’t be a port-a-potty, a nap cot or Starbucks. It would be biner clips. I always remembered a firm surface to support my paper but only once or twice did I remember to bring clips to hold my paper down. And maybe it’s just me, but mountainsides and peaks seem to be the windiest places on earth. The first gust of wind takes it away, then, or your grimy fingers have to hold down the edges—leaving green or red thumbprints at the edge of the sky. Or blue thumbprints in the grass. Next time, I’m packing a BIG stock of clips and using them liberally!

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“The Narrows,” Zion National Park, Utah

4) What we draw is often not what’s really there.

There’s an old artistic saying that most of us draw what we think we see, not what we really see. I’m guessing that those with a more abstract style might dispute this phrase, but from a purely representational standpoint, it certainly has truth. I was surprised how often my husband would capture a photo of me with my art in the exact spot where it was created—and when I looked at that photo, my artwork was not anywhere near spot-on color-wise. My work got better in that regard over the course of the trip, but I have a long way (lot more plein air painting?) to go in really capturing what’s there, not what my imagination thinks is there.

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Nevada Falls area, Yosemite National Park, California

3) Art forces you to stop and really look.

Along with the above, I was surprised how many details I noticed about  mountains or forests, not to mention about light and color on them, when I stared at the same view for a long time. On a sight-seeing vacation it’s very easy to flit from spot to spot, snapping frenetic photos, half of which will be blurry. But when you stay still in one place for awhile, you begin to see the things you never stuck around long enough before to notice. I found it much easier to really “soak in” the beauty and feel like I’d experienced a place, not just driven or hiked through it. Nature, it would seem, does reward the patient.

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Half Dome from the Panorama Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

2) Landscapes are easier to catch than endangered species.

I really would have loved to capture animals on this trip, but though we saw an abundance of them (including wolves), they never happened across my path while sketching. Of course I could have “added” one to the picture, but I chose to capture my vistas just “as they were” without adding any details. A deer or an eagle in the background would have been nice, however! In the future I’m thinking of taking some day trips to sit in one location for an extended period of time—half nature-watching, half-sketching. Perhaps there would be more wildlife around if I were around longer, too.

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Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

1) Nothing captures a moment like your own two hands.

Nothing says a vacation souvenir like a sketch you made yourself. Sure, photographs are works of art that require the two hands of the photographer, but a photo can be snapped in a moment. A drawing, pastel sketch or painting takes a whole lot longer. Sitting in the moment allows you to savor it and actually interact with your surroundings as you put them to paper. Ultimately, you walk away with a “souvenir” you created yourself. If that’s not satisfying (not to mention easier on the pocketbook), I don’t know what is.

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Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Overall, my pastel sketching efforts were a fantastic addition to the vacation experience. Just like me, you don’t have to be an amazing artist to benefit from plein air on your next vacation or weekend getaway. Just take whatever you have—paints, pastels, pencils or crayons—and carve out a few minutes each day to capture some of the sights.

You might be surprised what you learn about art. And about yourself. Not to mention the fact that you’ll have a different kind of momento from your trip.

One that’s no one else will ever have.

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