Linda Hoffman frowns at her canvas. “I need an olive green for the water.”
Kathryn Mitter looks up from her easel. “Add red.”
Mike Seat glances Linda’s way. “Burnt umber?”
Kathryn counters: “Burnt sienna?”
Like hunters or anglers debating about gear, the three artists consider a range of brownish reds before Linda settles on her charge: burnt sienna. All the while,they dab furiously at their canvases, as if tamping out little fires. In fact, they are chasing the light, which changes everyf ew seconds on this blustery June morning at Rocky Fork Lakes Conservation Area (CA) north of Columbia.
En plein air or “in the open air” describes their manner of painting, which became popular in 19th century France, then spread to Russia and America. Plein air painters work in natural light rather than in the studio, aiming to capture fresh, authentic impressions of objects as they appear to the eye. Even if you don’t know your art history, you’ve seen plein air works. Think of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.
Given the rise in plein air festivals across the country and around the state, you could say this historic manner of painting is experiencing a renaissance. Not surprisingly, many Missouri artists are discovering that conservation areas are great places to paint outdoors.
Working Against the Wind
This morning, Linda, Kathryn, and Mike pursue their impressions from the area’s covered fishing dock while several other members of the Columbia Palette Group set up along the shore.
Some have elaborate easels, heavy bags, and complicated tools. Others carry smaller kits: a board with watercolor paper attached, a roll of brushes, a couple of small paint trays. All choose their spots, and all anchor or guard their materials against the wind as they set up. In spite of Jerry Thompson’s caution, a gust blows his watercolor board onto the grass soon after he applies a wash. “That’s OK,” Jerry says. A retired architect, he’s been painting outdoors for many years and accepts the fact that he’s going to get grit, leaves, and bugs in his work. “Now it just has more nature in it.”
I appreciate his good humor, but I have to ask, “Why go to the trouble to paint outdoors? Why not just work from photos in the studio? Painting is hard to begin with. Why fight the elements, too?”
Member Colette Brumbaugh, who is setting up her easel and palette of oils, has a ready answer. “We try to capture the essence of the landscape, not represent it exactly.” She looks out over the lake, which shifts blue, black, and green under the ever-changing sky. There’s so much to take in, and I can see that, like a good hunter, she and every other artist in the group has aimed their sights on a particular target: the fishing dock, the shoreline, a cove, or an arm of land reaching into the lake.
And, like all good outdoorspeople, they’ve come prepared. Colette says her car looks like she lives in it. “I have gear for just about any weather — ski bits, slickers, boots, bungee cords — anything I might need to help me survive in the field.”
Painting together is part of that survival strategy. Themembers share materials, tips, equipment, and encouragement. Mike emphasizes the social and artistic-development aspects of gathering to paint outdoors. “I get a lot of creative energy from these people!” A former air-traffic controller, Mike has worked steadily to develop his painting skills, both in studio and afield, since he retired six years ago. “I took a couple of plein air classes at Columbia Art League and with Brian Mahieu at the Art House in Fulton,” he says. (Watch a video of Brian painting the state champion bur oak at McBaine on bit.ly/1PB1oiM.) Colette continues, explaining how she discovered Rocky Fork Lakes CA. “I knew about this place because my husband is a tournament fisherman. We’d come up here, and while he fished, I’d paint.”
As a plein air painting location, Rocky Fork Lakes CA offers easy access off Highway 63 north of Columbia. It features beautiful views of ponds, lakes, and rugged oakhickory forest and savanna. The covered fishing dock on the main lake offers shelter from sun, rain, and — to a certain extent — the wind.
Jerry says the group enjoys painting here. A couple of anglers stop to admire the painters’ work. Another man carries a kayak and a couple fishing poles down to the shore and readies his gear to launch. I watch Jerry work the man’s figure and craft into his composition. I wonder if he’ll be able to pull it off in this wind, in spite of his good humor.
As the blustery morning brightens to midday, and the wind dies down a little, I drift between the scattered groups of painters, following their progress. Linda’s combination of green and burnt sienna produced just the right shade of deep, warm green for the lake’s water. And Jerry’s wind-battered watercolor? It survived, catching the kayaker’s image along with the day’s dramatic light and color.
Bagging the Best Views — In Spite of the Bugs
When I arrive at Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center in late October, the weather is unusually hot and dry, but the fall leaves still blaze gold, orange, and red against the clear blue sky.
I find Ellen Hahs down by the old frog pond, methodically pursuing an upswept view of the nature center nestled against the glowing autumn trees. She wears a broad-brimmed hat and long sleeves, both necessary protection against sun and Asian lady beetles, which swarm in the open areas. An array of paintbrushes bristles from between her fingers as she works her composition. “This helps me avoid stopping to clean my brush all the time,” she says.
Ellen is curator of education at Southeast Missouri State University’s Crisp Museum. She’s been painting for 20 years, and in 2014 she did a workshop here at the nature center with renowned Missouri plein air painter, Billyo O’Donnell. She likes the challenges of painting outside. “It’s a constant process of solving problems,” she says. Although she’s painting with an informal group of Arts Council of Southeast Missouri Visual Arts Cooperative members this afternoon, she often paints alone, and enjoys scouting painting locations at conservation areas. Earlier today she visited General Watkins CA southeast of Benton and found “some really good stuff ” there.
“There’s a great drop-off ledge — a kind of little valley — and ponds.” Other conservation areas she likes to paint are Sand Prairie CA, just east of Benton, and Duck Creek CA north of Puxico. “They’re all completely different,” she says. “They have different kinds of trees and plants. Even in the fall and winter, people think everything’s dead, but you can really play a lot with color, push the shadows into blues and purples.”
Demonstrating as she talks, she explains her method of blocking out large areas of color from background to foreground and of the need to balance the hue, intensity, and value of her colors. Her painting takes on depth and definition as she works, and I leave her to work in peace while I catch up with the other painters.
Brenda Seyer, Vicki Outman, and Helen Towner are all members of the Visual Arts Cooperative, where they often show their work. Brenda teaches art privately, and today she and a couple of young students are working just outside the nature center entryway. She’s hoping to include some of the area’s hummingbirds in her oil composition.
Meanwhile, she’s assigned her students to draw in the shade. “They work outside,” she says, “then we take the drawings inside to discuss color and composition.” Around the corner from Brenda and her students, Vicki is braving the Asian lady beetles to render an autumn scene in pastel. A field umbrella offers a bit of protection from the sun and bugs. A visual arts co-op member for 13 years, Vicki is also an ardent fan of painting en plein air — in spite of the hardships. Painting in natural light “enhances your work,” she says.
“The colors are more accurate. True, you also get to enjoy fighting the bugs and wind and having your things blow away. But you learn so much more, especially about light and shadow and color values. Colors aren’t true working from a photograph.” Trooper she is, but Vicki cedes her sunny spot to the bugs, and we move toward shade. There we find Helen setting up her watercolor kit in the cool shadow of several old, gnarled Osage orange trees. One trunk lies along the ground, and the sinuous branches and roots offer a tempting composition.
Helen shows me her trick for making her watercolor kit field-friendly. Instead of carrying the weight of paint tubes, she squeezes her colors into a segmented palette and lets it dry. This keeps wet paint from spilling or running until she’s ready to mix it with water. Like her fellow painters, she lists the benefits and challenges of painting outdoors. “You have a brief window of maybe two hours before the light and the shadows change.” She regards the trees’ heavy, grooved branches and considers her scope. “I’m just going to do the branches and the speckled light, that could be enough.”
I catch up with co-op members Anita Dickerson and Marty Riley over by the lake just as they are packing up for the day. Anita, a retired elementary school art teacher, shows off her fresh oil painting of the lake reflecting trees in autumn color. Her painting mate, Marty Riley, is a retired nurse. Marty’s medium is pastel, and she has captured a tight view of a pair of gold-fringed bald cypresses standing in the lake’s blue water. Aside from painting at the nature center, both enjoy chasing scenes at Amidon and Duck Creek conservation areas, as well as Montauk State Park and Fish Hatchery.
Outdoor adventure is often about the thrill of landing the big fish or bagging the big buck. It becomes conservation when we awaken to the fact that these trophies depend on habitat, both its quantity and quality. Painting outdoors is part of this tradition. The physical, mental, and creative challenges of painting in nearly any weather can be as great and just as rewarding as those of angling, hunting, and trapping. And while painting doesn’t necessarily increase or conserve habitat, it recognizes and celebrates it, helping others discover and appreciate it, too. Scattered from one end of the state to the other, conservation areas provide key habitat for wildlife and treasured places for us to connect with nature. Missouri’s plein air painting groups help us see and appreciate these vibrant areas in fresh new ways.
Find a Plein Air Painting Group Near You
Want to join others who paint en plein air? A quick Internet or Facebook search turns up a surprising number of open-air painting groups around the state. Some require membership dues, and others are free and open to all. Here are just a few, but be sure to browse the Web for others in your community.
- The Arts Council of Southeast Missouri’s Visual Arts Cooperative includes several members who gather to paint en plein air. Visit their website at capearts.org.
- The Columbia Palette Group members enjoy the mutual support and camaraderie of painting outside together. Prospective new members should visit columbiapalettepainting.weebly.com to browse member profiles and contact information.
- The Missouri Plein Air Painters Association is a St. Louis-area group that gathers to paint in oil, watercolor, or pastel on landscape and architectural sites. Visit their website at missouripleinair.com, or find them on Facebook.com.
- Kansas City-area group, The Missouri Valley Impressionist Society, welcomes all ”who paint, love, and support representational impressionism throughout our region.” Find them at missourivalleyimpressionistsociety.com.
- Springfield Plein Air is a free painting group based on participation and donations. The group welcomes first-timers. Find their group page on Facebook.com.
Browse More Than 1,000 Conservation Areas Online
The Missouri Department of Conservation owns or manages more than 1,000 conservation areas, natural areas, accesses, and community lakes around the state. Visit mdc.mo.gov/atlas and use the search menus to find scenic places to paint near you. Many of our areas offer beautiful views and unique opportunities to see Missouri’s native plants and wildlife. Use the Detailed Search option to filter for activities such as birding, hiking, and nature viewing. Remember to check your chosen area’s map and regulations, and be aware of hunting seasons before going afield to paint.