“Science has proven that doing something that scares you will make you more productive, prepare you for new and unexpected changes, help you push your boundaries in the future, and make it easier to harness your creativity.”
When I rode motorcycle, it was easy to fulfill that command by Eleanor Roosevelt. Every time I switched off the ignition and unbuckled my helmet after a ride, I was grateful that I was still alive and whole. (My uncle died in a motorcycle crash.) I tried to be a good rider. I went to motorcycle safety class, even graduated from the advanced class. But I just didn’t ride enough. The summer that we went to Alaska for nearly two months sapped my confidence. When I hopped on after we returned home, I was nervous. I just wasn’t in the saddle enough to feel comfortable. Every time it was nice weather, my motorcycle friends wanted to ride and I wanted to hike, cycle, paddle, move. So I sold it and used the money to buy the family flights to Patagonia to backpack.
I was scared to landscape paint on the spot- plein air painting, it is called. It is fast and challenging to capture the ever changing light. It sounds much more tame compared to motorcycle riding but it can be very intimating in its own right.
All my life, I have only ever painted from photographs, which distills information down to two dimensions. Plein air is much much different than painting in a studio, with controlled light and having all the time in the world. But it is something that I always wanted to do. In my 45 years of being an artist, I probably only ever painted on the spot two times in total and both felt like utter failure.
So I landed a magazine job with Traverse Magazine in Traverse City, Michigan to take a three-day plein air painting course and write about it. I wanted to attend and be ahead of my learning curve, already feeling comfortable behind an easel and ready to absorb my teacher’s personal gifts and instruction. So I went to my friend Frank Fretz.
Frank is a fabulous artist and has helped me and my children become better artists for decades. He helped with my books’ illustrations as well as helped 13-year old Bryce create his first book. Frank is now in his 80’s. Still young in my book but I am not sure how long he will be willing to landscape paint with me and so I have asked him for his company and his wisdom and we have begun weekly painting sessions.
Since it was chilly this first week, we painted in their passive solar home, Frank looking one direction, me the other. I was not convinced I would like plein air painting but I truly wanted to and become good at it someday. My dream is to travel around the country when I’m finished with my next book, “Modeling a Life,” on a press trip. I plan to stop at my old friends’ homes (and a few new ones!) whom I have not seen for many years and reconnect. Have them arrange to have me speak in their local town at a library or an outdoor shop, go for a hike with them, sell a few books, and do a plein air painting where they live. By the time I return from my press trip, I ought to have a nice group of paintings for a show from the road and be half good at it.
I was surprised to find that while I was painting at Frank’s, I really did enjoy it. I painted for 1 ½ hours and then got a bit frustrated with the changing light and the fact that my painting had gotten so wet I could not spot highlights. Time to quit.
My husband was excited to see what I had done as soon as he came home from work and liked my painting but couldn’t understand why I kept referring to “the road.” He thought I had painted a stream, with the blue shadows in the road. I am not sure if that could be considered failure or not but I still felt good that he liked it, as did I. I will do some finish work on it after it dries and will post. But I think I am finally ready to take up this new activity of on-the-spot plein air landscape painting and I m excited.
Frank’s wife Lila is very wise and she once told me when I was complaining that I was not painting and always wanted to do this kind of landscape painting, but was doing other important work instead, like writing, she said, “Save something for later on in your life.” I was thinking “old and decrepit” and unable to move and painting in a van with wrap-around windows as I traveled. But now is a very good time to learn to be a plein air landscape painter.