Painting ‘Plein Air’ Watercolors and Creating Visual Memories

  • Desert Rose, watercolor, 9 x 12, ©2011 Helen Klebesadel

In mid December I had the privilege and opportunity to join my friend and sister artist Nikki Kinne for a week of RV camping and plein air painting in southern Arizona.  If you have read this blog before you know that Nikki is the Alaskan artist that I did the 33 Paintings in 33 Days Project with this summer, documenting it in this blog.  Later, in September Nikki joined me in Door County to help me teach a watercolor workshop at Lawrence University’s northern campus, Bjorklunden.  Despite all our fun together in 2011 we still wanted a chance to actually take the time to paint together, and circumstances arranged themselves (with our help) to make that possible.

In mid December I flew to Arizona where Nikki met me at the Phoenix airport and swept me away to the beautiful  Desert Rose Baha’i Institute campus where Nikki and her husband Ken park their RV camper.   There we experienced a lovely desert sunset, and an evening of catching up.  The next morning we set off to drive the RV to Patagonia Lake State Park south of Tucson, near Nogales, Arizona, just north of the border with Mexico.

Patagonia Lake State Park turns out to be on the migratory path for many birds.   It was teeming with all manner of waterfowl.  (In fact the 2011 birdwatching film The Big Year  did some of its filming there.) Within 15 minutes of being in the park I startled a Blue Heron and several other birds.

Upon arriving in the park I started right in on a plein air,  “in the open air,” painting. Plein air painting is important for more than the lovely paintings that can be the result.  The joy of taking the time to carefully observe nature is my favorite part of painting this way.  There are few times when most of us slow down enough to allow ourselves the privilege of just sitting and looking at the wonder of the nature that surrounds us.  There is something about trying to render what I see in paint or pencil that brings a special kind of focused attention to the details of nature.  I never see so clearly as when I try to draw or paint what I am looking at.  I can sit and stare for hours, seeing with amazement what other times I might not notice at all.  If I had never drawn or painted I would start now just so I could give myself permission to learn to look at nature with my full attention.

Padagonia Lake State Park, Arizona, watercolor, 5x8, ©2011 Helen Klebesadel

As night fell over the park more of the magic of the place emerged.  As we took an evening stroll the full moon rose over the park with an amazing ring around it.  Slowly, as a few clouds moved through the sky the ring around the moon  suddenly became a spiral around the moon, evoking an unnatural magic in the natural world.  It promised that the whole trip would have a special kind of magic to it, and I was not disappointed.

Spiral Moon, watercolor, 5x8, ©2011 Helen Klebesadel

December 10, 2011 Eclipse, ©2011 Nikki Kinne

It was actually the was the second day of our painting excursion that was the most magical.  We were lucky to be in the park  on December 10th, 2011.  We woke up at 5:00 am and got ourselves down to the lake shore to watch the early morning lunar eclipse. We were determined to be there to watch the moon as it found itself positioned in its orbit to pass through Earth’s shadow.  After watching the eclipse we headed back to the camper for breakfast and to capture our memories in sketches.

Lake Patagonia Lunar Eclipse, watercolor pencils, 5x8, ©2011 Helen Klebesadel

Nikki and I each have several other art projects underway and are involved in our home art communities. We spent the afternoon painting and catching up on our current projects, and began to plan for future shared creative projects.

The creative work of the day wasn’t over as evening fell.  We decided to participate in a sunset/moonrise hike in  newly formed Sonotia Creek State Natural Area that abuts the park.  The hike is offered by park volunteers monthly.  With a dozen other people we hiked up a rock and cactus covered hill to the to where we could see wonderful vistas in each direction,  Nikki documented the experience in photographs.  After a magical evening watching the sun set over Arizona and the moon rise over Mexico we hiked back down the hillside with our memories and Nikki’s photos to inspire visual memory paintings when it was too cold or wet to paint outside.  We  created these next few  paintings to remember the wonderful experience of the transition between day and night in this wild area.

Ocotillo, watercolor, 5x8, ©2011 Helen Klebesadel

A new body of work I have begun includes images of thorny vines.  On our hike I became fascinated by the thorny Ocotilla shrubs that cover the hillsides. They seemed to be living embodiments of the metaphor I have been working with as I imagine a new series of paintings.  I’ve been researching the plants ever since I came home (their blooms are pollinated by humming birds in the spring and they can perform photosynthesis in their BARK!).

Spiral Cactus, watercolor on canvas, 12x14, ©2011 Helen Klebesadel

For this mid-westerner the Barrel Cactus are fascinating too, especially observing the way their fruit grow, which in this instance seemed to repeat the spiral theme that was with me my whole time in the park.  Nikki convinced me to try out painting on a watercolor canvas too.  I’ll be exploring this approach more in the future because it was a lot of fun working on a non-absorbent surface that makes lift-out so easy.  (You have to seal paintings watercolor canvas with a spray fixative in the same way you seal paintings on Yupo Paper).

Sunset Moonlight Hike, watercolor, 3x9, ©2011 Nikki Kinne

Sunset Moonlight Hike, watercolor, 3x9, ©2011 Nikki Kinne

Nikki painted the beautiful work above recording the wonderful vistas we could see from the top of the hill as we watched the sun set.  I was inspired by one of Nikki’s documenting photographs to paint the work below.

Sunset Red Lace, watercolor, 12x16, ©2011 Helen Klebesadel

It was a magical day starting with a lunar eclipse and ending with watching the full moon rise over Mexico.  I’m sure bits and pieces of the day will appear in my paintings for years to come.

Moonrise over Mexico, watercolor 5x8, ©2011 Helen Klebesadel

During our five days in the park we painted from life when the weather allowed and  captured our experiences of the area as memories when it was too cool or rainy to paint outside.  We also spent a day being tourists, heading to Tubac, a local artist community (the town has been hosting the Tucbac Festival of the Arts every February since 1959.)  I’d love to return their in February to catch the festival and revisit some of the artisan shops we saw.

Patgonia Lake in the Rain, watercolor, 12x16, ©2011 Helen Klebesadel

The last couple of days in the park were amazing rainy days, putting a hold on our plans to do further plein air painting.   I was able to do some nice little grey paintings out the window of the camper (above) but we were not to get another chance to actually paint outside.  We both worked on our memory pieces and developed ideas for future works.   Nikki finished the painting sevre in-progress pieces and the painting below in anticipation of an upcoming show.

Wild Rose, Watercolor on Aquaboard, 10x14, ©2011 Nikki Kinne

It didn’t feel limiting despite our inability to go outside.  (Who knew it would rain so much and for so long in December in Arizona!) We were able to work from our memories, sketches, and documentary photographs. I found that by thinking of the little paintings I was doing as saving visual memories  and ideas for future works rather than fully finished artworks I was free to play and just see what happened.

Kinne Klebesadel Camper Exhibition, Patagonia Lake, December 13, 2011

Because of the rain we spent a pleasant two days painting indoors, catching up, and planning for our next joint project.  We are just starting another collaborative project.  We have begun to work on new bodies of artwork that will address a shared theme focused on growth and renewal out of dark times.  We hope to be ready to exhibit the work in 2013, and are looking for venues that would be interested in exhibiting watercolors so please send suggestions of possible places to exhibit this new work together.

On our last day we headed north to Scottsdale where we were treated to a personal tour of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art by the my friend Timothy Rodgers who is its Director.  Its a lovely museum doing very exciting programing with changing exhibitions, as well as being the home of an amazing James Turell skyspace called Knight Rise.

Nikki Kinne in the driver's seat. Thank you Nikki!

From the museum we headed back to the airport, where I bid goodbye to Nikki and my wonderful week of painting plein air and creating visual memories.  Thanks to Nikki Kinne (and Ken Kojker) for sharing their camper and giving me a very special time in painting in Arizona.

Helen Painting, digital photo, ©2011 Nikki Kinne

If you have never taken the time to sit and stare at where a ridge meets the sky or how a branch attaches to the trunk of a tree, or how a hillside reflects in a lake, I encourage you to put all fear aside and go for it.   If you do you could discover that the experience of careful observation is satisfying in itself and that it is aided by trying to record it as a visual memory.  If you do want to consider plein air painting or drawing here are a few hints about how to set yourself up for a successful experience:

Here is what I pack for plein air painting expeditions:

7×9 Arches Field Watercolor Book

9 x 12″ and 12 x 16″ Arches watercolor blocks (Watercolor blocks are great because the paper doesn’t have to be stretched and you do not need a board to attach you paper to, but since the watercolor paper is layered and glued in a solid block you cannot remove your painting from the block until its dry.  You will need two, so you can work on a second painting while the first painting is drying.

Canteen of water to drink and to paint with

At least three of my favorite brushes, #8, #4, #2 rounds

Set of 12 watercolor pencils and/or permanent colored ultrafine sharpies

Winsor Newton Masking Fluid

Rubber shaper brush to apply mask

Rubber Cement Pickup to remove mask

Old toothbrush for texture painting and applying mask (I spatter the mask with a toothbrush to achieve the stars in night skies).

A roll of masking tape ( I like to mask off the borders of the paintings I do  for the visual effect but this is not necessary on a watercolor block).

Two small water containers, one to clean the brush and one to provide clan water to paint with.

Two packets of paper tissue or a small roll of paper towels

#2 Pencil and sharpener

I have two favorite watercolor kits that I use depending on the occasion:

Small:  Winsor Newton Field Set (this and a set of watercolor postcards are all you really need)

Larger:  Capri Watercolor Box  (this allows me to carry my studio on a shoulder strap.  I can use my tube watercolors in the included pallet, and have room for my brushes, extra paint and a water container).

Bring a small camera to document what you are painting to review later if needed.

Decide if you need to bring something to sit.  Dress comfortably, wear a cap or wide brimmed hat to keep the sun out of your eyes.  Prepare for bugs.

Have a great time!

Finally, one last thank you to Ken Kokjer for giving up his time with Nikki and to Nikki Kinne for sharing her precious painting time in Arizona with me.  What a gift!  I had  great time!

About Helen R. Klebesadel

I am an artist.
This entry was posted in A Painting A day, art collaboration, Beauty, Biographical, Creative Play, Fabulous Artists, Inspiration, Plein air Painting, Watercolor and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Painting ‘Plein Air’ Watercolors and Creating Visual Memories

  1. What a fantastic trip and how much fun you had. Bill and I RVd full time for 2 years….I know the life on the road. I am so happy for you and the paintings are incredible and thank you for the list for plein air expeditions….See you the 12th.

  2. Danielle Devereaux-Weber says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful adventure out west; and the beautiful results that you and Nikki produced! It is such an inspiration. Not only do I dare to imagine plein air painting, but I might not even wait for warmer weather… I bet I could find something fun just off my back porch!

  3. Kate says:

    Great notes/paintings sounds like you two had a grande time!

  4. Thank you all for the kind words. Yes we did have a grand time, and Danielle, I agree, you can find plenty to paint right off your back porch too!

  5. Sherry says:

    I have endless admiration for watercolor artists who manage plein air work. Thank you for your description of a wonderful trip, and also for sharing your field tool kits. I work and rework kits like yours, and always vow I will try again, despite my generally not-so-good attempts at working outdoors. Perhaps it’s all in the attitude, and I should look at plein air work more as a chance to contemplate nature than a place to do work I really like. Your painting evoke the time and place beautifully.

    • Thanks Sherry! Yes, I have much better results the less pressure I put on myself to do finished art works. When I started just trying to capture what I wanted to remember to revisit in future more developed works everything became easier. Do stay with it even if its just to sit and enjoy what you are experiencing in nature.

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