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Plein Air Painting on the Mighty Mississippi

21 May 2014

We believe in the truth of the adage that there are "diamonds in our own backyards."  To live it instead of just talking about it, we made the short trip to paint the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Mo. just a few hours from our door. We have always been inspired by rivers big and small. Whether the subject is interesting wildlife or fabulous light or the raw power of nature, there is always something great to see and paint along them. Over the years, we have returned to these rivers to attempt to capture that special something they possess. The Mississippi always exceeds our expectations.

Ann, Cella, and I overlooking the Mississippi River during a plein air painting session.
Ann, Cella, and I overlooking the Mississippi River
during a plein air painting session.

Our journey up the Mississippi got started at a little park on the northern shore of the river - at the spot where the Missouri River joins it. It is also the place where Lewis and Clark began their adventurous exploration of the American West, paddling hard upstream against the mighty current.

Our ultimate destination was the 300-foot high limestone bluffs which sit majestically over the river at the picturesque little village of Elsah, Illinois, former summer home of the painter, poet and teacher Frederick Oakes Sylvester (1869 - 1915). Sylvester was an important figure in American art at the end of the 19th century and became a major artistic influence in the Midwest. He loved to paint the river en plein air, standing somewhere above his house in Elsah, and he encouraged his students to do the same. His love of these bluffs and the river were expressed eloquently in his illustrated book of poems, The Great River, circa1911. His influence was in no small way responsible for the siting among those bluffs of the Principia College.

The Mississippi by Frederick Oakes Sylvester, landscape painting.
The Mississippi by Frederick Oakes Sylvester, landscape painting.

We were familiar with Sylvester's wonderful landscape paintings of the Mississippi river and the bluffs, (see Poet Painter of the Mississippi, Perspectives No. 51 on The Artist's Road) and wanted to see for ourselves if the reality bore any resemblance to his artistic evocations. Although the Principia campus is not open to the general public, we were lucky to have help with gaining access through an old friend and architect, John Guenther, who has helped design several buildings for the college and knows the campus well. John showed us the trails which led to the best river views. As we gained the heights we knew immediately that we had found what we were looking for. Sylvester had not exaggerated - the awesome view has all the important elements that contribute to great paintings. We set up quickly and with Sylvester's landmark work in our minds, spent a remarkable day painting two spectacular bird's eye views from the top of the bluffs.

Above the Mississippi at Principia by John Hulsey, 9 x 12, oil painting.
Above the Mississippi at Principia by John Hulsey, 9 x 12, oil painting.

Don't miss the step-by-step progression of those plein air paintings and the complete story of our trip up the Mississippi, A Painting Journey Along the Mighty Mississippi River only at The Artists Road.

And don't miss this special video demonstration and watch the PBS interview of John as he paints the eagle's eye view of the Mississippi River from the high bluffs.

--John and Ann


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