Plein Air Painting in the Smoky Mountains

One project I find very rewarding is plein air painting.  That is the process of simply painting outdoors, whether it be in a city or the country, using the medium of your choice.  It is a wonderful way to connect with nature in its purest form.  My husband and I recently took a trip to the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee.  We met with family and friends to see the sights and had a wonderful time.  While driving the Cades Cove Loop we stopped for a break at a point called Abrams Falls.  The sign said a moderately difficult 2.5 mile trail that will take about 3-4 hours round trip.  We did not have time to hike then, but decided we would do it in a day or two.

Abrams Falls, Cades Cove, Smoky Mountains, Tennessee art, plein air painting, acrylics
Photo of Abrams Falls in Cades Cove, Tennessee in the Smoky Mountains by Denny Martindale

The rest of our party left a day earlier than we originally thought, so we planned our hike for that morning.  I had thrown in a canvas and grabbed a handful of paints and brushes (literally) as we packed for the trip, so I decided to take them with as you never know what you might find.  I carted the paint gear and David carried water and snacks and we set out on the trail.  It was a clear, cool morning as we made our hour and a half trek to the falls.  They are not overly big but the setting is in a cove and it is really refreshing as you sit and listen to the sound of the water surging over the edge of the rocks.  I found a log that made a perfect seat and proceeded to set up to paint.  Since I have only done plein air on a couple of other occasions, it takes a little more thought to set up than if I did this on a regular basis.

plein air painting, acrylic painting, Tennessee art
Artist at work, plein air painting Abrams Falls Photo by David Martindale

I proceeded to block in the basic shapes of the falls and the surrounding landscape.  I had just grabbed some tubes of paint so my colors were a bit limited, but I figured I could probably make do.  One of the major aspects of plein air painting is the timing of the light, shadows and atmospheric conditions that allows an artist to recreate a particular scene.  Midday is not always the most opportune time, and here I was painting at high noon.  Although the air was still on the cool side, the sunlight and resulting reflection was intense.  It helped that I was in the shade, but the colors were not what they would be in the morning or later in the afternoon.  I even reached a point in the process when I was so dissatisfied with the piece that I was actually ready to quit!  At the urging of my husband, I continued on and after about an hour and a half, to my surprise, finished with a piece that, all things considered, is not too shabby.  During this time, other hikers were coming and going, and everyone wanted to see what I was up to.  I presume they were impressed as they took photos of me at work, and one man even took a close up of the painting and then one of the falls from my perspective.

Abrams Falls, Cades Cove, Smoky Mountains, Tennessee art, plein air painting, acrylic painting
Finished piece, Abrams Falls, acrylic, 9″ x 12″ by Denny Martindale

After we were home for a couple of weeks, I finished it off with a coat of varnish for acrylics and once dry, placed it in a black frame.  If you have not tried plein air painting, you might just want to give it a try.  Make sure you prepare for the elements, pack the correct painting gear, and tell yourself you are out there to have fun.  Once you loosen up and decide it doesn’t have to be perfect, you will have a wonderful experience with nature that only plein air painting can give.

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Plein Air Paint Out on the Natchez Trace Parkway

     Being a pet portrait artist, I am in the studio more often than not when I paint.  I have been wanting to experience plein air painting now for quite some time.  I guess I caught the bug to do this when Chestnut Group member Kim Barrick came to give a talk at the Tennessee Art League in Nashville, TN a year and a half ago.  I never seemed to find the time to do this, until my husband and I went to Taylor Park, CO about 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.  I had thrown in the acrylics and a couple of canvases, so that my aunt (my aunt and uncle met us up there) and I could try it.  Neither of us had ever done this, so it was definitely uncharted territory.  There is no humidity there, so it was interesting at first to get the paint to the canvas, as acrylics dry quickly anyway.  Needless to say, we were proud of our first little plein air paintings!

       Then, in March, a good friend and I were invited to a plein air paint out put on by the Tennessee Watercolor Society.  I went with pastels this time, and it was wonderful to be out in the fresh, albeit chilly Spring air.  The old shed and flowers I painted was not bad either.  My friend Ann and I offered to host them to a paint out on the Natchez Trace Parkway in June.  They heartily accepted the invitation.

       Now, to June 14, 2008.  The paint out was scheduled for 9am at the Garrison Creek stop of the Parkway.  It rained all night, and the skies were pretty grim.  Thunder rolled a couple of times at 6:30am.  I packed up the gear anyway.  We had discussed cancelling the event the night before, but we decided since there is a pavillion, we could at least paint the hills and trees.  At 9, the skies were trying to brighten a bit, so we headed up to the Trace, and met Bitsy and Noriko from the Plein Air Nashville and Tennessee Watercolor Society groups.  We painted under the pavillion, chatted with cyclists coming in from the short-lived showers, and had a really great time.  Other artists slowly made their way in, and everyone painted the beautiful scenery.  When the skies parted after lunch, we made our way down to the creek and painted along side the gently rolling waters.  Needless to say, painting nature is terrific!  If you decide to do this, make sure you have bug spray! 

     As an artist, plein air painting is a great experience.  I feel it can only enhance the creative process, even  when you get back to the studio.  Happy painting to all!