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 can not pack up your entire studio and hump it into the wilds. You would not 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 finished a decade of hard travel before irreremeably collapsing in Nice. back to France, its home, before expiration.)
An umbrella is also an indispensable part of the kit. It protects you from the sun and the rain, although, admittedly, sudden gains 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 fortunately to have had the opportunity to spend two wintry months in Te Anau.
I was introduced to Tom on my first night there. Here 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. Here 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 transported 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 goes 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 blocked and shut down a few times due to the numb 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.
After two hours of both a mighty and tearful struggle – Tom's might, my tears – with the outboard we gently glided onto a beach. 'Can you smell the deer?' Here asked me. 'Uh no,' I replied. My nostrils were being blocked up by sandflies. These perfidious bastards greeted me by the hundreds. Any opening, any gap in my protective clothing was soon found and exploited by these hard-shelled devils wholly intent on doing evil to my person. 'Sonofabitch,' I fought. Here Smiled: 'You'll get used to them. After a few hundred bites. '
We portaged our pitifully meagre rations and painting gear up, then down, and across a wet and slippery ravine to Lake Hansen. Here had a second boat moored here and this would take us deeper into the wild where we would break for lunch before embarking on our real adventure.
At the end of Lake Hansen is a hunter's cabin. I'm not sure how old it is but it definitely had what I felt to be a 1920's feel to it. We brewed up a pot of Billy Tea (the standard beer fare when tramping about the bush down here) and wolfed down the victuals. Life is good. It is just how I imagined trout fishing in America used to be. Being a man of action, Tom, tore off his jacket and said: 'Time to go. I have a boat up at the next lake that needs to be bought back here for some repairs. You'll want to leave your jacket here, too. It might get pretty warm coming back. '
The last part of what Tom said did not register. I was thinking 'How wonderful – a few hours of painting and then a sentimental journey back lazing upon the gentle rhythms of the creek.'
We strolled down the path toward Lake Thompson. Here mentioned that there was a bridge up ahead that we'll be crossing. Bridge? So what? I did not pay any heed to such ridiculous cautions, I was basking in sunlit vernal bliss.
The bridge was a 3-cabled affair that was accessed by climbing a dubious looking ladder. There was one cable to walk on, like a tightrope performer in a circus, and two thinner cables on which to hold for dear life. Here scampered up the ladder and paused sniffing the air for deer I imagined. He must have done a promising scent because he literally danced over the bridge's cable. He may have even pirouetted a couple of times. I'm not sure. I was dumb stuck how anyone, less a 70 year old, could cross that cable so fast.
Reaching the other side Tom slid down that ladder and fled into the bush. 'Oh crap!' I hastened over the swaying cable with ill-placed, tremulous herring-boned steps struggling to keep both myself and painting gear from hurtling onto the rocks far below.
The hiking path was little more than a fragment of some half-forgotten dream. The deer trails were in better shape and I kept straying off of my intelligence path onto the deer trails. Here was crash through the bush like a commando hell-bent on a suicide mission. Now and then I would catch glimpses of him as I struggled to keep up. Once I ventured too far down a deer trail and felt that I was now lost. Curiously I recalled reading somewhere that when people get lost in the wild they do not perish due to deprivation but to shame. I understand that now.
'Here? Here? ' I claimed out blatantly. No answer. I backtracked down the deer trail. I was done for. I knew it. I now sorely wished that I had saved some crackers for a life-sustaining snack.
Further down the trail I finally spotted Tom impatiently waiting for me. 'You OK?' he asked. 'Sure,' I replied with a manly gasp. 'I just lost the trail for a moment.'
'It gets rough now. We got some boulders ahead of us and it can be slippery. Try not to break your neck. '
For the next mile we clambered over moss-slicked boulders the size of houses. Breaking my neck was the least of my worries – I was more concerned about keeping my dignity intact.
It was mid-morning when we finally descended the boulders onto the muddy beach of Lake Thompson. Here asked me how much time I would need for my 'project'. 'A couple of hours should suffice.' 'Do not dawdle,' Tom said, 'unless you fancy hiking back in the dark. I'll be up there getting the boat. ' He pointed to some obscure spot half-way up a mountain side. I felt it would be imprudent to ask why a boat would be stored on a mountain side. Maybe the lake has biblical floods.
Here disappeared up into the mountain to fetch his boat. I was left alone on the beach with only the sandflies and my paintings to keep me company.
There is a cleansing exhilation to setting up one's easel in a remote spot where very few people have been before. At most six hunters a year will pass through Lake Thompson. Remnants of early morning mist still hung over the lake and the sun was breaking through the cloud cover. The painting went well. It practically painted itself well within my allotted time of two hours.
Here returned down the mountain carrying a 10 foot aluminum row boat on his shoulders. With his arms outstretched and gripping the gunwales to steady the boat I was at first perplexed as to whether I was looking at a comical Christ-like jaunt down the rocky steps of Golgotha or a madman. Neverheless, I looked forward to setting the boat into the lake and floating back to Lake Hansen. 'The creek is pretty choked up this time of year so we'll have to carry the boat back,' Tom said.
Before the ashes of my dashed hopes had settled onto the beach Tom headed back onto the boulders and with the boat houted on his shoulders began our painful return journey. My only thought was' the horror! the horror! ' This was insane. The general nomenclature of hiking rates trains from 1 for beginners (ie, a stroll to the local 7-11 for a slurpee) to 10 for advanced difficulty (a three to five day hike over very rough terrain. of roots and bugs for maintaining one's life). I do not think there is a rating for hauling a row boat over a trail that would break the spirit of a commando.
For the next three hours we pushed, dragged and heaved the boat over boulders the size of duplexes, under brush and logs and when the trail was completely inaccessible just smashed our way through. I was completely bathed and blinded with sweat. ('It might get pretty warm coming back,' I remembered Tom telling me.) My easel, slung over my back, insisted on continuously groping me at frequent and inopportune moments.
An hour into this Dantesque hell I simply accepted that I would be pushing and lifting this damnable boat in perpetuity. The veneer of civilized manners slipped from my being and I reverted deep into my racial unconscious. I had become a beast of burden. Nothing else. Here looked to be wholly engulfed in his singular madness. A man near 70 years, twenty years my senior, and he would have to be my savior were my heart to collapse.
We reached Lake Hansen by late afternoon. With the sun beginning its early descent into mountain darkness there was no time for rest. Here moored his infernal boat high up from the shore line and we embarked immediately back to Lake Te Anau. It would be another two hours or so before I would get home exhausted. But I had bagged my painting.
Not every plein air excursion is a testing adventure, of course. Many times an enchanting composition can be found in your backyard or a nearby park. The main thing is to get out and paint and, yes, it needs to be said, live your life.
The hardest part is breaking the inertia and getting started.