Plein Air Painting

“Plein air paintings” are done on location, painted from real life. In the case of my wilderness landscapes, it means hiking with watercolor paints, palette, brushes and paper secured in my backpack. Or rafting down a whitewater river with materials strapped into a drybag.

When I was a kid, I had a Sierra Club poster…a photo of a tree with Henry David Thoreau’s quote; “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It held its quiet promise on the walls of my college apartments, inspired me to join hiking clubs and to leap at every opportunity to leave the city on backpacking adventures.

By 1972, I escaped the suburban Bay area. I first began painting scenes of the wilderness as a young teacher in a remote logging town in northern California. 35 years later, I still live and work at the foot of Mount Shasta, and travel into the backcountry of the North American west on foot and by raft.

My work takes place in this wilderness…watercolors capturing a moment in the timeless flow of river water, glacier ice, the slow growth of pine, the bloom of wildflower. I paint on location, perched on a boulder beside whitewater rapids. I sketch from a bed of pine needles beneath a spruce, surrounded by snowbanks, a raven watching from a branch overhead. I climb high onto the mountain, above treeline, into the silent song of bare rocks in late summer. My paintings reflect the conditions I find each day, fast drying washes in bright sunshine, splatters of raindrops between storms, rock dust added to paint. My pigments are mixed with river water, the seeping trickles of a mountain spring, drops of melting ice.

The roots of landscape painting from life are found in 19th-century Europe. Englishman John Constable believed the artist should forget about formulas and trust their own vision in finding truth in nature. To find that truth, Constable made sketches outdoors, then elaborated on them in the studio.

There is a truth I discover while working on location…a truth that extends into the images I create, and on to those who view and own this work. These are not domesticated scenes. My work is of the place, of the time. My papers and brushes are carried by raft down northwest rivers, taken out at sunset after setting up camp on a remote beach. They are packed over mountain passes in the high Sierras, tucked into the hold of my sea kayak off the Baja coast. The work reflects the sweat and truth of these journeys. In it is revealed the texture of rock, layers of lichen and fern, in the shadows of clouds blown over mountain slopes and the dance of rapids.

My work, both paintings and prints, are rooted in the Thoreau quote that inspired my youth. They come out of the backcountry with me, and bring with them that promise of wildness to save the world.

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