My brother and I explored the East Coast, darting from train to train to visit every art museum we could. We saw paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Bierstadt, and Moran. But we did not notice any dirt or bugs buried in the paint; unfortunately, that’s how most of my oil paintings turned out.
Last summer, my brother and I carried oil painting supplies as we hiked the John Muir Trail, 220 miles from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. As we painted, mosquitoes flew into layers of paint and withered away as I tried to cover them. As our eyes settled over blue lakes, dark forests, and high mountains, no studio lighting or cushy seats helped us work. We sat on hard bear canisters, braced against wind and rain.
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Here’s how it happened: I had taken art lessons for years, in a small cool room on weekends. Then, about a year ago, I thought: if I like painting and I like the outdoors, why not combine them? I tried to teach myself to “plein air” paint. Before the John Muir Trail, I hauled my easel to the beach to set up for a painting of blue sky and water. Soon, my palette (wax paper taped to a book) had fluttered away, and sand covered my painting. Families giggled as I scuttled around, attempting to salvage a hopeless painting.
After a while, though, I improved at painting outdoors with wind and weather. My brother helped me take it a step further. I had wanted to hike the John Muir Trail since my first trip to Yosemite. Now, we weren’t just going to hike it, we were going to paint along the way! So we began researching – reading books about impressionism, and visiting museums of old Western painters. We learned about impressionism and luminism, and how to incorporate the ideas into our own paintings. We learned about color balance, and how to mix our paints.
We set up “the device,” which held our canvases. It consisted of four plastic boxes, strapped on our backs like turtle shells. We carried them, along with our paints, easels, cleaner and medium, each step we took over snow, sand, and surging rivers.
On the trail, we were “the painters.” As we crossed paths with others along the way, they gawked at the obtrusive objects on our backs and called out in excitement, “how are the paintings?” We smiled, well aware of how ridiculous we looked. We loved it.
We definitely stood out. As other hikers lay in the sun, exhausted from the stress of snow, deep river crossings, and long days, we unpacked our easels. Record-breaking snowfall had weakened us all. But after hiking, we painted until dinner, and finally collapsed around eight. Some filmmakers along the trail considered us so interesting, they are making a short documentary about our experience.
I finished with eleven mosquito-ridden paintings and strong legs. But I also finished with an idea of how much my mind and body can truly handle. And we may never remove the sand and bugs from the paint – I don’t want to. It is exactly those ridiculous aspects of each painting that make them so interesting.
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