While I have been painting my entire life, I have been painting “en plein air” since 2000, hiking deep into the forest that surrounds my home and studio. I tend to go out for the day so these tips are for day trips. I go out in all four seasons in all kinds of weather. Brutal heat and snowy cold. Here are 20 Practical Tips for Plein Air Painting in the the Back Country that I have learned, some the hard way, in no particular order.
1. Have the proper clothing for the weather. This can be a matter of life or death and should be considered very seriously, no matter how close to home you may be. If painting in the snow, wear waterproof snow pants and insulated, knee high, snow boots, and ice cleats like YakTrax or IceTrekkers. An over coat suited for the temperatures goes without saying. I remember when I first moved to Brown County and was hiking out in the forest in the deep snow, near dusk, I was so enchanted with the beauty of the fresh, sparkling snow I didn’t realize until I was a good mile or two in the woods that I had lost my trail. Everything looked totally different in the deep snow. Trees were bent over with the heavy snow and small bushes were buried in it. My trail was obliterated. I also realized that my jeans were soaking wet, snow had spilled over the tops of my hiking boots and my feet were wet, I wasn’t quite sure where my trail was, and it was starting to get dark. A wave of panic swept over me. Thankfully, I was able to drop down off the ridge and down to the creek and follow it back up to my property. I thought I knew my trail so well, that I had become lackadaisical.
2. Dress in layers and wear undergarments that wick away sweat. Often, hiking out to a painting location, I start sweating and my under shirt can be soaking wet by the time I arrive at my destination even when the temperatures are below freezing. Wearing clothing that wicks away sweat is important to staying warm and dry especially in cold weather. You want to wick the moisture away from your body to stay warm. Several companies make clothing that have no cotton in them with material designed to wick away moisture. Look for the tag that specifically says the fabric is designed to wick away moisture. While I love natural fibers, cotton is a material that retains perspiration and won’t serve you well in the winter, especially. Standing for several hours in one spot, I often get chilled especially as the day wanes and the shadows grow long. In the fall and spring, I will usually have an extra jacket in my back pack to put on as the day cools off. In the summer, I may tie a light jacket around my waist, just in case I need it.
3. Carry a compass along with your cell phone. Practice using the compass before you need it. Don’t count on GPS. You may not have a signal in the back country. And GPS can be flat out wrong. People have died counting on a GPS. Don’t make that mistake. I have two GPSs and neither one can find my house.
4. Study and carry maps when going into new or unfamiliar territory. Getting turned around in the forest on the rills and ridge tops and in the valleys can be very disorienting especially if there is a cloud cover and you cannot navigate by the sun or it gets dark. One time when I first moved out here next to Yellowwood State Forest, I was exploring out in the woods and got turned around and lost my way home. I ended up climbing up to a ridge top to take a look around and much to my surprise, I could see my barn off in the distance, one ridge over!
5. Travel light. Get rid of any gear you don’t absolutely need. One pound here and another there may not seem like much, but it adds up fast. And if you are like me, a 105 pound weakling, 10-15 pounds is a lot. Twenty pounds is way too much. Try carrying around a 15-20 pound bag of cat food for a day.
6. Wear a brimmed hat, NOT sunglasses. A hat with a brim will keep the sun out of your eyes while painting. A brimmed hat will also keep the rain off your eyeglasses if you wear them. Sunglasses will distort and darken the colors you see.
7. Give yourself plenty of time to get back to civilization before it gets dark. Keep track of how long it took you to get to the painting spot and how long it will take you to get back taking into consideration the terrain. If you have an uphill climb to get home, leave extra time for that. Pay attention to the sun. When the shadows are starting to get long, it is time to pack up. Since painting the sunset and dusk is one of the most beautiful times to paint and you may want to stay out until the last vestige of sunlight is gone,you should see Point 8. There have been plenty of times I was packing up and hiking home in the dark.
8. Carry a flashlight in your pocket if you will be out in the field after dark. The headlights are great and keep your hands free. In the winter, I almost always carry a flashlight and/or headlight because the days are so short and can get dark very quickly. But, again, don’t be lackadaisical no matter what the season. Once, I got caught out in the woods in the summer in the dark. The heavy tree cover and lack of any moonlight meant it was pitch black. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. And I was a good mile back in the woods. I had to drop down off the trail to the creek bed and follow it along, stumbling, and when I finally got to the point where I had to go up the steep hill with a very narrow path with dropping sides, I called my dog over and hung onto his collar and told him to lead me home. I guess he was so hungry and ready for dinner, he obliged.
9. Know your physical limits. Don’t do more than you are physically able to do. Practice with short expeditions to test your stamina and your gear. Work up to long treks like you are training for a marathon.
10. Stay in good shape. Staying in good shape year round is the best policy. Easier to stay in shape than try to get back into shape. Eat good organic, raw, fresh foods and steer clear of food made in a factory. Eat plants not food made in plants. Exercise everyday.
11. Wear Hunter Orange during the hunting season. This is required by law during the deer season but I wear it whenever there is anything “in season” just to be safe. If you aren’t sure, wear it. I have a variety of bright orange long and short sleeve tees, a hoodie, hats, and vests to wear no matter if it is 80 degrees or 10 degrees. I also make sure any guest has on hunter orange.
12. Be alert for dangerous animals such as venomous snakes, coyotes, feral dogs, bears, and cougars. Know the region where you will be hiking and painting. Learn about potential, dangerous wild animals you may encounter and know how you will respond. Most wild animals will want to move away from humans but, again, don’t be lackadaisical. I got bit by a copperhead at the edge of my driveway, on Friday the 13th, no less, and I should have been paying better attention. I had a “Red Flash Warning” (see Tip 16.) but ignored it. I learned later that copperheads are very aggressive and are one wild animal that does NOT move away nor does it give a warning(like the rattler). They also have unlimited venom and a spare set of back fangs — and they know it! I was laid up for two months with that!
13. Poor eyesight can be an asset but keep your glasses safe and near. I am nearsighted and take off my glasses to paint the landscape. Everything gets a little fuzzy and the picky details are distilled out of the scene, allowing me to see the major shapes and values and the essence of the landscape. I carry a glasses case in my backpack to slip them in while painting to keep them safe and handy.
14. Stay alert. I tend to go into a deep meditative, trance state when I paint on location. Nevertheless, one must always remain vigilant on a certain level and always be aware of your surroundings.
15. Consider self protection. My dogs go with me and go a long way to filling that “protection” role. Everything you add to your pockets and pack weigh you down so I like to keep it light. However, pepper spray and a cell phone are the smart things to do for safety and protection.
16. Listen to your intuition. If you get a bad feeling or what I call a “Red Flash Warning” pay attention and respond appropriately. Under no circumstance ignore that “feeling”. The neat thing about intuition is that the more you use it, the more it comes to your aid.
17. Carry a first aid pack and survival cheat sheet. So if the worst happens, you are prepared and have a strategy. Okay, I admit, I don’t do this for day trips in familiar areas but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea. I have at least studied those survival cheat sheets.
18. Tell someone where you will be and when you are due back. Especially if it is an “out of the ordinary” expedition. I go out every day and pretty much everyone knows it so they should know where to start looking if I turn up missing.
19. Carry food and water appropriate to the length of the journey. For day trips, I often eat before I head out and eat when I get back home. I am usually too busy with hiking and painting to bother eating anyway. A light snack may suffice.
20. Keep your mind on good things.
Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Happy Trails and safe painting!