Destination Bandelier ~ Artistic Preparations ~ Part 2 “THE APPRENTICE…”


I’ve been going on an annual pilgrimage to 10-day “art camps” at Shrinemont at Orkney Springs for over 25 years, over 30 in fact… When I started it was organized by Jerry Coulter through JMU, now Gwen Bragg continues the tradition, Thank you Gwen!  Unplugging and creating for 10 days every Summer in this timeless environment is AMAZING!

The Virginia House ~ Shrinemont at Orkney Springs

I go primarily to focus on independently making art pursuing my current art goals and hanging out with long time art buddies.  Getting fed three square meals a day and having no chores to pull me away from “making” are a nice perk too!!!  This year my goals were formed to address the focus areas I talked about in the last blog, “Destination Bandelier ~ Artistic Preparations ~ Part 1 “A NEW FOCUS…”

Those focus areas are:

1)  Plein Air painting ~ in this usage defined as –  a painting executed out of doors and representing a direct response to the scene or subject in front of the artist.

2)  Direct Painting ~ That is my term for painting a piece (onsite or in the studio) quickly and directly in as close to one sitting as possible… Quickly, at least for now, is looking like 2 hours or less to get a single piece 90 – 95% complete; Directly means mix the paint and put it on the painting without intending to go back over it again and again and again.

One of my Orkney art buddies at “art camp” is an avid Plein Air painter so I decided to become his “apprentice” in all things Plein Air during this year’s trip!


My Plein Air Apprenticeship

First, I need to sing some praises for my Plein Air “Master”, Patrick… He is very humble and not looking for attention so I won’t share his last name… We have been enjoying all things creative sharing experiences, stories, suggestions and ideas for years at Orkney.  I greatly admire Pat because of his love for creative endeavors and his passion to learn new techniques and develop his artistic capabilities for the sheer love of it.  He is not in it for the “glory” at all, just to revel in the making, the learning, and the sharing…  Patrick is a very active member of the Loudoun Sketch Club and I even got to be his guest to a paint out a few years ago which gave me a taste of this Plein Air painting on location “Thing”.

Patrick in his element painting Plein Air

So, I approached Pat to be his “Plein Air Apprentice” this session of Orkney to assess my new set up, learn the ins and outs of supplies to bring along, how and where to set up, glean any hints for working on location and so on!  Pat cheerfully accepted the challenge!

The first surprise is I had inadvertently selected the same brand set up he uses from En Plein Air down in Texas!  Pat coached me on the minimalist necessities to bring along including paint and small palette, brushes, palette knife, a pencil & eraser, a small ruler, water, water container with small clip to hang with, small water spray bottle, bug spray, rag or paper towels, and a clamp to keep art from blowing away, etc.!

I started with my travel palette of watercolors but also decided I would use a set of gouache that comes in a compact airtight container with 24 colors that are already moist and creamy and I can use either brush or palette knife with them.  Another artist friend of mine, Carol Pivarnik, turned me on to this set and how she paints Plein Air with it.   I also added poster putty to my essentials list so I could “secure” the box of wet paints to the tray!

Initial consultations complete… Let’s go paint in the morning Pat!  It went something like this:

“Let’s go paint Pat!  Okay Robyn, meet me at my car at 5:30 we can get down to Lake Laura and get set up before sunrise!”  GULP!!!  So much for sleeping in on vacation!!!  HA!  Turned out to be an incredibly beautiful time of day, so quiet with distinct colors to discern as the dawn light emerged…  Oh, and remember the dew… feet are going to get WET!!!

Session 1:  I beat Pat to the car I was so excited!  Hot coffee in my Yeti, duffle bag slung on my shoulder… It was a glorious, cool morning…  Pat immediately pointed out the colors of the dawn sky to the East… “The color will change as we go down to the lake…”  Pat generously shared his entire methodology for laying in initial washes, the order of what he paints when, color mixes… Such helpful insights!  The group I normally walk with every morning at Orkney came down and inspected our progress, they were very encouraging!  My biggest take away from this first session was how the “environmentals” (aka HUMIDITY) impacts the watercolor paper and how quickly you can or can’t work!  Otherwise, working with the new set up was a breeze and was very quick to set up and take down… SWEET!

My first attempt was very pleasant but very muted… It got some “touch ups” back in the studio to punch it up a bit!


First dawn Plein Air painting session (Watercolor) at Lake Laura


Session 2:  A delightful repeat of the first day’s start, coffee and kit in hand, Pat came out as I did and he again pointed out the colors of the dawn sky to the East… We rode down to the lake in quiet contentment, a few observations on the morning’s offering of colors along the way… I switched mediums and decided to try out the gouache this session.  The peach sky was so beautiful over the Great North Mountain in the background, I lost all sense of scale and ended up leaving out the lake entirely in my first painting… I started a second of the Lake Laura Dam…  I found myself painting in the gouache as if they were watercolors… In this environment, the color was so muted, these were no where near completion at the end of our painting session… We painted from ~ 5:45 until ~ 7:30… an hour and 45 minutes!  So I was gaining confidence with the set up but oh my, I had not yet figured out the “direct” side of this equation!  My biggest take away from this second session was painting in my normal watercolor style was not fast enough!  A delightful morning at the lake none the less!

My second attempts were also very pleasant but like the day one watercolor painting, the end results were muted… These also got some “touch ups” back in the studio to punch them up a bit!

Second dawn Plein Air painting session (Gouache with Brush) at Lake Laura

Session 3:  Another glorious, cool morning…  This time instead of painting at the boat ramp, we decided to go down to the lake head where the feeder stream runs into Lake Laura… high stepping through wet grass… thank you to the folks that mowed the path or we would have been soaked to the waist!!!  Our buddy Paula joined us this morning too!  I turned my back to the lake and fell in love with the scene of the fields rising from the stream up towards the road to the boat ramp.  The cloudy morning created interest and mood… this was going to be fun!  I was very excited how this little palette knife painting developed so quickly… Hmmm, maybe I’m figuring out a way to paint directly out on location!    My biggest take away from this third session was how quick it was to paint quickly with thick opaque paint!  Very exciting discovery!

My third attempt was very simple but cohesive… definitely hit the 90-95% mark in the initial painting session!  The image below is the touched up version after returning to the studio… made just a few touches to unify!

“Happy Valley” Third dawn Plein Air painting session (Gouache with Palette Knife) at Lake Laura looking back towards Happy Valley

Session 4:  We returned to the lake head and this time I went to the bridge over the feeder stream to Lake Laura.  Nothing more than a four foot wide concrete path with no railings!  This little gem of a painting confirmed what I had found the day before… painting with palette knife and thick wet paint forced me to be direct!  I loved how this one came together… painting from the distance to the foreground… just a yummy painting morning!  Patrick had to come nudge me out of my reverie to remind me to pack up so we wouldn’t be late for breakfast!  (Oh my, no way we want to be late to eat Orkney food!!!)  The funniest moment was me kicking my yeti coffee mug into the creek while packing up!  Luckily, I was able to lay on my tummy on the concrete and hook the mug with my index finger!  My biggest take away from this fourth session was “Thick and Fast”!  Oh, and maybe I need a tether for my Yeti!!!

My fourth attempt…  Responsive to what I was seeing, direct and not fussy… HUGE SUCCESS!!!!  I touched up a couple value changes back in the studio but that was it!  Yay!

“Morning Stream” Fourth dawn Plein Air painting session (Gouache with Palette Knife) at Lake Laura on bridge over feeder stream…

Pat even gave me a bonus session on painting mid-day and dealing with the bright sunlight!  I got hot in the process and impatient with the painting… so artist’s prerogative, I’m not sharing it!!!  ; )  They can’t all be masterpieces!  My biggest take away from the mid-day session was how incredibly BRIGHT the painting surface was in direct sun… blinding!  So, either finding a shady spot to paint from or investing in a Plein Air shade umbrella was a definite consideration… ( Yes, there is such a thing, Pat let me try his out!!! )


Continuing the Direct Painting Self-Challenge

In conjunction with the Plein Air Apprenticeship focus during this year’s “art camp”, I also decided to continue my Direct Painting “self-challenge” I shared in the last post to help me learn to paint more quickly and decisively when making these small studies.

After I went out with Patrick to paint Plein Air first thing in the morning, I’d come back to the studio to then paint another small study from a reference photo taken down at the Lake.  The objective was to complete it to within 90 – 95% within a  2 hour sitting if possible.  Here are examples of two pieces I produced successfully in within the self-imposed time limit following the Plein Air sessions with Patrick:

“Lake Laura Reflections”  Direct Painting on 8″ x 8″ cradled panel with Acrylic


“Lake Laura Shadows”  Direct Painting on watercolor paper with gouache

Definite progress!

So this year’s “art camp” proved very productive and moved me forward in both confidence and speed for my Plein Air and Direct Painting preparation focus areas!  It was super fun to be in learning mode vs. solely a production of “what I do” mode!  I’m not giving up my normal styles of working, I just am eager to add these new tools into my artistic toolbox and “vocabulary.”  I think this focused environment definitely allowed me to make significant progress in my focus areas of Plein Air and Direct Painting!   I’ve learned a lot about how the different mediums behave painting on location vs. painting in the studio.  The Plein Air set up has been tested and is working beautifully.  I’ve also become bolder in putting thicker pigment onto the painting!  Great progress is being made!

What’s Next…

Next post I’ll shift gears and share some of the travel planning and logistics adventures in preparing to live for a month in a National Park!


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