After a new snowfall, there are many beautiful things to paint right in the backyard. It was not very cold this morning for Michigan winter (about 20 F) but a breeze kept the windchill in the teens. Having done a studio painting with a palette knife for the first time recently, I thought it might be a lot easier to paint outdoors in cold and snow with palette knives instead of brushes. So I tried it today. The paint was still very stiff, of course, and it was still difficult to keep things clean. I don’t know that it was easier than with brushes, but I had a good time! I have a pad of canvas and I am trying to learn to just jump in and try things instead of feeling as though I have to create something frameable. It is the joy that matters!
When I was taking a watercolor class from artist Rhonda Root at Andrews University, she introduced me to a book by colorist Stephen Quiller called Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory. Quiller found a set of pure pigments containing exact complements from which all the popular colors on the market could be mixed. He called his resulting color chart the Quiller WheelTM. If you want a limited palette of 12 pure pigments (plus white) that will easily mix any color, this is a helpful resource. As a landscape artist, I use mostly neutralized colors. I have found that I can use these 12 pigments to easily mix all the earth colors I want, as neutralized as I want.
Many people, even a majority of people, have “math anxiety”. As a mathematics professor, I see this in my students, and I have experienced it in myself. Math anxiety is an irrational fear of “getting it wrong”, of being judged by others, of being “found out”, of being identified as an imposter. In graduate school, I was gnawed inside by “imposter syndrome”, although I didn’t know what it was.
“Painting anxiety” is perhaps a similar fear. When I was 10 years old and taking painting lessons, I was not afraid. But when I picked up my brush again at age 50, I faced a barrage of irrational fears. I felt that if I didn’t produce something satisfying at each attempt, I was wasting time, money, and materials. I wanted to paint en plein air, but I was afraid someone would come by and stop to watch me. I wanted to take a class in watercolor, but I was worried about the days when the teacher would be critiquing our work in front of the class.
Somehow I managed to persist and grow more comfortable with learning from mistakes. Then one day my father called my attention to a front page story in the newspaper about a group that painted outdoors every week in a nearby park. I found the leader’s email address and wrote to her.
She was welcoming and helpful. The group was inclusive and encouraging. Once I felt part of the community, I just wasn’t afraid anymore.
This teaches me two lessons about art. First, just jump in and try stuff. Second, be inclusive toward others; we’re all learners.
By the way, as a math teacher I could have told you long ago that this is exactly how people become successful in mathematics.
I’ve been cross-country skiing almost every day now for weeks. The snow has been wonderful. One day I skied by a striking grove of young sycamore trees and I immediately wanted to paint it. Today the temperature went up to 30 F, so I did something I’ve always wanted to do: ski into a site and paint. I put my pochade box and other gear in my backpack, put on my skis, and headed for the sycamore grove. I painted for an hour and then skied for another hour to get in my exercise.
I finally learned how to keep my hands warm while oil painting in the cold: Hibbard Mittens. You put an old mitten or wool sock on your hand and then poke the end of the brush through the material so you can hold the brush inside the mitten. Yea!
The snows have finally arrived in the north country. For Christmas, Jim bought me a pair of insulated high boots to wear when painting out in the snow. I am finding it a challenge to paint outside now. I can barely squeeze the oil paint out of the tubes, and it seems much more difficult to keep everything clean. I need to somehow solve the cold hands problem. Convertible mittens are not working as well as I’d hoped!
This year of 2020 has been a nightmarish year to remember. Painting landscapes, especially en plein air (on location), can be a great way to reduce stress and experience joy. I hope my paintings will share with you some of the deep joy and beauty I find in the natural world.