Painting on site, en plein air, is a wonderful way to become artistically intimate with the landscape. Sometimes, however, the sense of a place is larger and more complex than the size of a single canvas. Sometimes it is more illuminating to pay attention to what, during the process of painting at the easel, would be considered distractions. A teasing gust of wind, rattling in the tawny grasses; a harrier circling low over the tussocks; the tantalizing mystery of an unidentified bird call; the tracks of an unidentified mammal. I love to paint the woods, but I am also fascinated by each and every tree. Who lives here? How does this ecosystem work? What mysteries are hidden from my view?
I am out in the salt marshes of Blackwater Refuge, and in the area of Farm Creek, a nearby Chesapeake Audubon Sanctuary, shivering in the chilling wind, awake and alive. I’ve brought my dependable, paint-spattered aluminum easel and paints, but it is my binoculars and sketchbook that are getting the best workout. When my fingers get stiff, my digicam comes out to pinch hit. When I cannot feel even the camera buttons, I walk to warm up. There are few refuges from the wind, but I crouch and sit on the path, to get the perspective of a fox, a deer, a muskrat, or goose. If I press my cheek to the sandy soil I can imagine that this is how the tiny, rare bird called the black rail sees its world.
Eventually I have several pages of sketches, notes on what I’ve seen and heard, and a few words that try to convey my feelings and impressions to the me that will be reading them in a warm house tomorrow. The challenge that awaits is to bring all of these together into one painting. . .