Painting en plein air (in the open air) is one of my greatest pleasures. It gets me out of the studio and into nature and after a short two hour session I am fully reinvigorated and ready to tackle whatever life decides to throw at me that day. I keep a rucksack filled with my en plein air kit of brushes, oils, palette, etc. by the door so that I can grab a quick mug of coffee and a muffin as I make good my escape.
The first important consideration is to travel light. You obviously cannot pack up your entire studio and hump it into the wilds. You wouldn’t make it to the end of the block. Just a few brushes, a very limited selection of colors, a half-box French easel (I use a Mabef easel; my beloved Julian half-box had endured a decade of hard travel before irredeemably collapsing in Nice. At least it had made it back to France, its home, before expiring.)
An umbrella is also an indispensable part of the kit. It protects you from the sun and the rain, although, admittedly, sudden gusts of wind can wreak havoc on your pleasant sojourn and provide comic relief to onlookers. I use a white golf umbrella with the handle sawn off and affixed to a tent pole that is then tied to my easel with a couple of bungee cords. This set up allows me to stand at my easel.
Painting en plein air requires an economy of means. There is no time for fussing about or finicky details. Once I find my subject and set up my station I compose myself for a few minutes: I want to see the picture before tackling it with limpid and juicy brush strokes.
When searching for my subject I keep an open mind and will sometimes hike for hours before finding a composition that intrigues me. Sometimes the composition finds me. This is what happened with the plein air sketch Lake Thompson, New Zealand.
Te Anau, the town known as the gateway to Milford Sound on the south island of New Zealand, is sustained by deer hunting in the winter and early spring. Most visitors quickly pass through Te Anau on daily excursions to Milford Sound. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend two wintry months in Te Anau.
I was introduced to Tom on my first senderismo en night there. Tom is almost 70 years and still works as a professional guide leading deer hunters deep into the sylvan mountain forests of New Zealand’s wild west coast. Tom also packs in replenishing provisions. The rule of deer hunting is that if you shoot it you carry it out. A good sized buck will weigh in at about 150 to 200 pounds. That’s 200 pounds of limp meat heaved and roped onto your back then carried up and down mountain ravines for several miles to a boat or helicoptor for transport back to Te Anau.
A few weeks after being introduced to Tom he called and invited me to join him on a boating excursion up the middle arm of Lake Te Anau. This would be no tourist excursion but the real deal venturing bravely forth into the depths of New Zealand’s wilderness.
Armed only with a pack of crackers, a wedge of cheddar and a couple tins of sardines plus my painting gear stripped down to the bare essentials Tom and I embarked from Te Anau Downs into the cold, fog-shrouded silence of the lake. The outboard motor shuddered and hesitated and shut down a few times due to the numbing cold. The fourth time the motor quit I began to wish that I had foregone my painting gear and packed more life-sustaining victuals. It would be a very long walk over the mountain back to town.