I have always loved the idea of plein-air painting: Heading out into into the late afternoon sun with my easel slung over my shoulder, looking for the perfect vista before which to set up shop and capture the epic scene before me. In real life however, it means packing my tripod, my pochade box, my canvas, paints, brushes, and the rest of it. So much for simple wandering: I need a location a priori, and a path from the car to my painting location which accommodates me and my noisy, cumbersome rolling cart. So much more planning... so much more stuff! To hold it all I need a car more than a knapsack and too often just the idea of all that preparation makes me think of some lame excuse to postpone my outing.
The reality of plein air was always more cumbersome and plodding than my fantasy. But the dream lived on, and then I read about Sharon Bamber who walked 1000 miles along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, stopping to paint en plein air every five miles. Wow! Maybe I could do something similar on the Camino through Italy. How cool would that be, combining three of my passions - walking, painting, and Italy? But as I read on, I learned she had some help: Not only was her husband there to help schlep over 80 pounds of equipment, but she had her donkey, Dupon, enlisted as well. Okay... I don't have a donkey and my husband has no interest in playing one, so that would leave me and my (almost) 65 year old back to carry the burden. And while I totally admire her determination, her stamina, and her passion (not to mention the dedication of her husband and Dupon) I am not looking to emulate the "levels of emotion and physical exhaustion" she endured.
Could I lighten it up (literally) without sacrificing the experience? I dreamt of being able to enjoy the walk, the ambience, and the adventure! What if I could trim down what I carried to a bare minimum? It called to mind the way back days when my gang was a bunch of white water kayakers and there was nothing more fun than setting up camp alongside a rising river, exploring the rapids by day and hanging by the campfire by night. We had a saying then - "Minimum Equipment, Maximum Man!" It summed up our admiration for those of us who could do with less stuff. It spurred competition among the diehards: Camper van? Not on your life! Sleeping pad? Spare me! Why bother with a tent when a hammock will do? It was fun to see how little you could get away with. My painting life on the other hand (and if I’m honest, my life in general) has involved the steady accumulation of stuff. My rolling cart full of what I thought were my plein air essentials weighed in at over 50 pounds!
So what I could toss? With a Mari Kondo mindset I examined each item in my plein air kit to decide if I really needed it. Tripod? Not really! Umbrella? Puleez! Pochade box? Nahhh... And as my load got lighter, so did the need for planning, and preparation. I was able to get the load down to less than 6 pounds and into a light backpack that hangs by the door and can be slung over my shoulder at a moment’s notice – Minimum Equipment, Maximum Artist! Now, rather than pulling up in my car and making a production out of setting up a replica of my indoor studio outdoors, I could just settle down under the shade of a tree, use my knees to rest a piece of foam core with a canvas tacked on and get to work.
I have to paint small; nothing bigger than 9x12" but that's ok - think study. I'm there to soak up the sights, looking for compositions and inspiration. And with less stuff I can focus on the experience. Minimum equipment, maximum immersion. Now, with my minimalist plein-air pack I can walk wherever and whenever inspiration strikes. If I find a place that inspires me to paint I can settle in and get to work. And if not, well, I've had the pleasure of a walk, and there's never been a day where I don't feel happier after a walk in a pretty place.
Then, last month, I learned that I was selected as this year’s Artist-In-Residence for the Adirondack Interpretive Center (part of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry) in Newcomb, New York. I will be staying for two months in a beautiful log cabin overlooking Artubus Lake and surrounded by 15,000 acres of dense, ancient conifer forest. In addition to teaching a couple of workshops my only responsibility is to do lots of plein-air painting. There will be a reception/exhibition in Newcomb and I will keep you in the loop on how it’s going along the way. I haven't quite absorbed the news fully at this point other than the recognition that my new minimalist plein-air kit is going to come in handy!