I’ve never heard of a painting marathon or an Iron Man competition for artists, but if there were such a thing, Kevin Macpherson would be a title contender. In 1996, Macpherson decided to challenge himself by creating a landscape painting from one vantage point—overlooking the pond just outside his home in Taos, New Mexico—for every day of an entire year.
A renowned artist and instructor with 30 years of landscape and plein air painting experience, Macpherson spent five years completing his Reflections on a Pond series. For newcomers, painting en plein air means literally, painting “in the open air,” and is more commonly known as painting outdoors.
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I recently spoke with Kevin about the series and his motivation to capture a sense of a place that he truly loves. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Artist Daily: Many might consider the choice to paint from one vantage point an extreme limitation, but you were of the opposite mind—that there were so many visual elements to choose from. How so?
Kevin Macpherson: If you approach your subject as just a subject, a tree or a person, you can see it one way in your mind. If you approach it as a vehicle for light, the reflection of light, and take your response to the subject into consideration, then the subject changes constantly. When you put aside preconceived values and observations and the memories of the last time you painted a certain subject, the opportunities for a fresh look are endless.
AD: You often had to be ready to paint at a moment’s notice, and sometimes had only a few minutes to witness the visual effects you were trying to capture. How did you adapt your painting methods and materials to do this?
KM: I had my little easel set up by the window for five years, basically. Having it ready at all times was really important. Size was also key—all of the paintings were 6” x 8”. If they had been any larger than that, I wouldn’t have been able to capture the totality of the effects I was seeing. I painted as quickly and as intuitively as possible, aiming to capture the effects in color notes with relationships of value next to one another. After I got that down, I would go back in and enhance the painting with the accuracy of drawing.
AD: Painting en plein air is strongly associated with Impressionism and the artists who worked during that period. Do you have an affinity to that movement and how has that influenced your philosophy and how you work?
KM: For me, it was a natural thing. I became a member of the Plein Air Painters of America in 1986 and was the president of the organization from 1996-2000. When I started out, not many people knew the term plein air, or how to use it. But there has been a nice resurgence of that school of thought that considers it to be painting from direct observation. The benefit of that for painters just starting out is growing and improving so much more than staying in the studio. I highly recommend it.
AD: How does the pond affect you differently now that you’ve steeped yourself in it artistically?
KM: I was lured to the pond from the start; something about it touched me, and I became very possessive of it. After I completed the series, there was a sense of completion. But now I have the feeling that I am not paying it as much attention to it, as though I’m neglecting it. Like a kid that goes off to college, the pond is still “there,” but does not get as much attention in the day-to-day.
AD: Would you embark on another prolonged series similar to Reflections on a Pond?
KM: Yes, I think it’s very likely. I don’t know what the subject would necessarily be, and I don’t know if I’d do it for the same length of time, but I could see it happening if I found an inspiring subject. To see something every day and to always be able to see something different—maybe that is true success.
AD: Do you think there are other vistas on the horizon that you might be equally inspired by?
KM: Choosing a subject has a lot to do with what you are exposed to. The pond is outside my window. I can see it everyday. If I moved to a big city, I could see myself being drawn to the architecture and light patterns on buildings. I travel a lot, too, and that gives me the opportunity to look at subjects with a curious newness. Seeing something fresh, and the beauty of that newness, is inspiring. But on the other hand, looking beyond the surface and really seeing something—that is the deeper challenge.
For more insights on classic and modern landscape painting and the joy of discovering the natural world around you, Chinese Landscape Painting Techniques for Watercolor is available now. I hope you love the look of what you see in this book as much as I do. And stop by the Reflections on a Pond series' website to learn more about the series and it's creator.