Artwork done outside is as much about the experience as the result. Sometimes, it can lead to a very deep, zen-like connection to the natural world.
Painting outdoors is more challenging than working in your studio. It’s always more uncomfortable—especially with no easel or painting stool. But, that’s just part of the experience.
I originally published the following post as “Three Seats of Stone” in August of 2012.
A large flat boulder, blue-green, cool to the touch and smooth as silk. In the middle of the North Fork Teanaway River.
It’s like sitting on a piece of elegant marble—an anomaly in this stream filled with sharp basalt and rough sandstone.
This is a pleasant, shady spot with lots of room to set out my acrylics, water bucket, and brushes. Facing downstream, with the current flowing all around and nothing behind me but river.
I relax and focus on the mesmerizing flows, the ripples, the reflections. The stream gathers high above me in bright alpine wildflower meadows dripping with snowmelt, and flows down steep basalt canyons and through forests and farm valleys, finally coming out onto the open, drier landscape of ponderosa-covered rolling hills. There, it joins the Cle Elem River, then the Yakima, the Columbia, and finally the Pacific Ocean. It’s a trip of a few days, I would guess.
Small, rough, lumpy, uncomfortable. Sandstone? On the rocky banks of the Salmon River near Mt. Hood. Very hot.
I have to spread out my watercolors at my feet and hunch over to reach them. The sun is blindingly bright on my white paper.
The current is rushing just enough to block out all other sound. I fall into the painters’ trance, focusing on the river: a moving picture of shapes and colors. The water shows me different things, in some places reflecting the forest and sky, in others the rocky bed below. Sometimes nothing but the greenish depths of the water itself.
I occasionally glance behind. Has someone approached while I was away in art-world? Am I being watched? I scan the banks, and the forest beyond. I am alone. Just me and the mossy giants of this classic old-growth forest.
Sharp, wet, precarious. A bus-sized rock formation—one of the Oregon Coasts’ famous Earth-sculptures.
I imagine it was erupted from some Jurassic volcano, then plunged under the continental plate, pressed, cooked, uplifted, shook, and wave-attacked…for millions of years.
Now, it’s my own private rock painting-bus, with a series of sharp but perfectly butt-sized notches to squeeze into. I scramble up and choose the best one: the drivers’ seat. There is a built-in back to lean against and shelves for my palettes and brushes.
I’m high up, out of reach of annoying looky-lous, and with a sweeping view. The air is fresh and salty, the ocean unbelievably blue. Wow. This place is perfect. I could stay here all day. I get settled and launch myself into my watercolors and soon I have fully entered art-mind. I feel so great I think my brain waves are probably rising and falling in sync with the ocean.
I realize my mistake. Darn.
I pack up and climb down from my magic painting bus and reluctantly head back up the trail.
Next time, remember: no extra cups of morning coffee. It’s better to be a little dehydrated on a plein air day.