Let Nature Walk Right In Front of You

29 Jun 2011

Sunrise River II by John Hulsey, oil on canvas.
Sunrise River II by John Hulsey, oil on canvas.
"You can observe a lot by just watching." - Yogi Berra

I was reminded of this quote as I was sitting on the boardwalk in Constitution Marsh on the Hudson River near where we used to live. I hadn't started my plein air painting yet. I was just sitting quietly soaking up the scene—one I had painted many times before. Some people came noisily along, looked around for a few moments, and finding nothing to entertain them, left.

A moment later, a large osprey swooped down right in front of me, plucked a hefty fish out of the water, and headed off down river. Although it only took seconds, it seemed to happen in slow motion. I could see every feather on the big raptor as he executed this move in perfect rhythm, never breaking stride.

It was a moment I'll never forget and an impressive instruction to sit quietly and let Nature come to us when we are painting outdoors. You see things you might otherwise miss, and by sitting motionless for a time, we become more or less invisible to wildlife, and they will sometimes get very close to us while they go about their business. 

The great blue heron catches fish by remaining nearly motionless in the water, convincing fish that his legs are inanimate and safe to approach. I copied this tactic one morning and was able to encourage one of these extremely shy birds to walk within just a few feet of me.

River Sunrise I by John Hulsey, oil on canvas.
River Sunrise I by John Hulsey, oil on canvas.
The experience gave me the opportunity to observe and memorize his shape, color and movements en plein air, not from a photograph.That knowledge, in turn, has allowed me to paint him into a number of water scenes without any other reference.

The development of a strong visual memory is an essential skill for plein air painters and it goes hand in hand with the ability to sit in quiet contemplation. Light and shadow move so swiftly as we paint that it is tremendously helpful to be able to lock into our memory those qualities and features of our subject that we are most interested in before they change. (Or do what Monet did, and haul 4 or 5 canvases outside and switch them every hour!) By forcing ourselves to study a subject for a long while, we also can get past our visual biases and appreciate all the nuances of our outdoor painting subject more completely.

We can also gain similar training by painting a familiar subject repeatedly, each time working to find something fresh in it. And sometimes, Nature just walks right in front of us. This is what I love about plein air art—we just never know what gifts will be showered upon us.

For more in-depth articles about this subject and other painting subjects, please visit us at The Artist's Road.

--John & Ann

If you are interested in honing your plein air painting techniques and skills, join us this fall in our plein air painting workshop in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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