Sunday, January 19, 2014

What Writers Can Learn From Plein Air Painters

I'm writing this note as I sit inside our car in Hope Valley. Across a snowy meadow, 200 yards away, I can see my wife standing at her easel out by the ice-covered West Fork of the Carson River.
My wife paints plein air landscapes (among other subjects). This morning, taking advantage of a low-snow winter and beautiful warmish weather, we decided to make another foray out to a river/mountain view, she to set up easel and paint, me to write under the warm high-altitude sun.
But shortly after we'd hiked out across a snow, the wind came up. Of course, one always brings extra clothes when going out into the Sierra, winter or summer. We put on everything we had. Yet twenty minutes later, the windchill had taken its toll. My fingers were too numb to type. My wife struggled to mix paint on her palette and even hold her brush.
You should go back to the car and write where it's warm,” she said.
But what about you?” I said.
I came all the way out here. I won't quit until I get a painting done,” she said.
The sky was clear, and the wind wasn't life threatening, so I agreed. I could come back out and help her carry her gear when she was done.
Now that I'm back in the car, toasty warm, I can see her out on the snow, doing jumping jacks, trying to get enough warmth into her fingers to continue painting.
In the center of the photo, straight above the fence post,
just below the line of trees, is a little speck on the snow.
That's my painter lady.

Here I've zoomed in with the camera.
The jumping jacks weren't enough. She's got the hood up on her anorak.

I'm reminded of some of the emails she gets. “I want your life,” people often write after she sends out her weekly “Art In TheMorning” email with a picture of her newest painting, one that often features a plein air landscape.
And yes, it is a great life. Like me making up stories, earning a living painting pictures is a great job. And as a bonus, she gets to spend many hours outdoors in some of the most beautiful places on earth. What's not to love about it?

This one is called "Peaceful River"
But the next time I'm at one of my wife's shows, looking at a collection of her landscapes, I'll remember what I've witnessed and heard about. Slapping the biting flies, searing your skin under relentless summer sun, watching the wind pick up the easel and the fresh beautiful painting and carrying it into the lake or river or plopping it face down in the dirt, passersby whose excited dogs leap up and knock your lunch into the sand, blowing grit that embeds itself in the paint, the toothless mountain man who emerges from the forest and is too interested in you just after your paint companions have left and you are still packing up solo as twilight descends and your car is a quarter mile away. And of course, I'll remember the jumping jacks. Whenever I see anyone's plein air winter scene, placid and glowing and looking like it must have been a great joy to paint, I'll remember the jumping jacks, a try-anything attempt to stay warm enough to complete a painting.
This one is "Sunlit Sierra Winter"

"Turn In The West Fork"

It's a good lessen for us writers. Whenever I feel like it's hard to write, hard to create something out of the ether, I'm going to recognize that I've got it pretty easy and use that perspective to dive in and get to work. For most of us, most of the time, we don't have to write outdoors, and we don't have to do jumping jacks to keep our fingers working.

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