Misadventures of Plein Air Painting

I’ve been painting en plein air for about ten years now. Maybe that’s why I was a little inattentive as I ventured out this morning to meet with our local group of painters for this first time this season. I packed my supplies the night before, and had everything in the car ready to go. Or so I thought.

It was a brisk morning, the temperature had only reached the high 40s when I arrived. I donned a stocky cap and my down painting jacket. After morning pleasantries with the other artists, I found a spot to setup and reached for my viewfinder. Gone. Emptying out the contents of my backpack yielded no results. Sigh. Ok. No problem. I can wing it. A square format looks good, “I’ll go with a 10×10 since it’s been a while,” I say to myself. I set-up my easel and reached for a panel. Guess what? No panel. No problem. A quick jaunt to the nearby car to grab a panel. No 10x10s. Ok. I guess I could do 12×12. That feels ambitious for a first painting of the season, but ok. Plenty of people paint much larger on location.

I trot back to my spot to layout my paint palette. I have reds, greens, yellows, earth tones, oranges, greys (hey! There’s the burns sienna I’ve been looking for!). No blue. I always have Ultramarine Blue, Pthalo Turquoise and Cobalt Blue. Sometimes I even have Payne’s Grey, Bice, some fancy Sennelier Blue, and Cerulean. Not today. Not a single blue. The closest I have is Chromatic Black and Pthalo Turquoise (which might as well be green).

Well, I guess we’re going with a limited palette today. Good thing it’s overcast! An hour and a half later, I was ready to wipe the painting, but I told myself to keep going. After all, this is all about practice. I did my best to ignore the people yelling at their dogs in the dog park, the sirens wailing in the distance, the heavy machinery down the road, the parents yelling at their children, and the voices in my head. I remembered to step back, to “mix brains with paint” as my teacher said and think through the problems of temperature, value, edges, and drawing. I made brush strokes and laid down paint. And it felt good.

Next time, I think I’ll bring some blue paint. And water. Water would be good.

Nature Journaling for the Plein Air Artist

As a plein air artist, I have struggled between creating paintings that record my experience and creating artwork from place. I finally have a name for the way I have been sketching, thinking about my experience of nature and inquiry – Nature Journaling!

I am far from the first to approach nature journaling, there is a long history of Nature Journaling by folks like Claire Walker Leslie and now John Muir Laws who has created the Wild Wonder Foundation. Nature Journaling is cropping up in schools and various groups are gathering around the country.

What is Nature Journaling?

A nature journal is a place to record your observations, questions, connections, and understanding in a notebook. Unlike a written journal, nature journaling uses pictures, symbols and numbers, in addition to words. It’s not a place for pretty pictures (although they can be). It’s place to record a way of thinking.

I remember studying clouds, thinking I need to know more about these clouds to paint them accurately. What are the names, why do they form, what is the pattern, what’s causing a microclimate, why do they change with the season, how do they change? I remember being in conversation with an art teacher that said, “You don’t need to understand it, to paint it. Paint what you see!” Perhaps he was right, but my curiosity was never quenched.

As I have been diving into the pages of my journals, I feel a newfound sense of freedom using symbols, words, descriptions, color, questions, and really taking time to look. To see.

https://neliaharper.com/nature-journaling-classes/I invite you to join me in this exploration of nature journaling and see how it transforms your experience of nature.

June 14th Plein Air Paint-Out

This month, we are meeting at the Grand Rapids Area Public Library on June 14th from 9am-12pm. The library sits along the edge of the Mississippi with a walking path that runs from downtown to the Veteran’s Memorial Park. There are pedestrian footbridges, views of the paper mill (if you want an urban challenge), the dam, and plenty of trees, flowers and river views.

Bring a lunch to enjoy at one of the picnic tables along the walkway or visit on of the nearby restaurants for lunch.

Bargue Studies

A right of passage for classical atelier training includes copying Bargue Studies. Created by Charles Bargue and Jean-Léon Gérôme and published between 1866 and 1871, over 197 lithographs were printed as individual sheets for aspiring artists to copy until 1911 when the firm reproducing the lithographs was dissolved.

Now compiled into a book, the Charles Bargue Drawing Course is used by many academies and ateliers which focus on classical realism to train the eye of the student.

Of course we start with simpler exercises, that use primarily straight lines and then build in complexity.

Bargue Plate Images
Drawing in graphite

The goal is to match the line quality (thin and thick, light and dark) as well as the shape, curvature, and proportions. The example on the left shows how to simplify the drawing with straight lines before adding curves.

Each drawing is taped to a board with a sheet of paper next to it. A plumb line is drawn along with a horizontal line. From there, the student steps back a few paces and uses either a string or long tip of a pencil to ‘eyeball’ distances, angles, and eventually gradation of value.

Click on each image for the full view. Coming next: Stage two, drawing plaster casts.

Coming up – First Friday Art Walk in Grand Rapids, MN

Central School, Grand Rapids, MN

Come to downtown Grand Rapids from 4 – 7 pm for a free, family-friendly community celebration of art and creativity. 

I am excited to announce that I am participating in my hometown’s
First Friday Art Walk (for the first time!), October 4th from 4-7 pm
at Project Care (100 NW 3rd Street).

The Grand Rapids Art Walk is going to be active and full with an additional 200-300 people expected in the area for the Rural Arts and Culture Summit. Stop in at Project Care Free Clinic of Grand Rapids, MN​ at 100 NW 3rd Street (across from the Herald-Review office) to meet me and fellow artist Larissa True.

If the weather is clear – there will be pop-up sales out front with a bonfire and more fun. Light refreshments will be served. I hear smore’s are in the works!

For a full list of venues and artists, check out Grand Rapids Arts. There are 15 venues to choose from and a variety of art from paintings, murals, and photography to live music and wood carvings. The event is free, family friendly and open to the public.

We are #6 on the map.

See you there!

Three Weeks – Feels Like Three Months

Three weeks ago, I packed my Prius and headed north on I-25, rolling over the hills and plains of Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota, traveling 500 miles.  Just before I reached Canada, I turned east and drove another 500 miles. Gradually the prairie gave way to clusters of trees, and I found myself passing through familiar territory of my hometown.  There, I visited my family before continuing the final 75 miles to Duluth, MN.

Today, we finished our first week of class, and I’m exhausted.  Standing in front of an easel for 7 hours a day, copying drawings, measuring angles, distance, space, and line, we search for errors of millimeters, all in preparation for working with a model in October, where fractions of inches and angles make a difference.

Work in progress – Bargue copies

Maintaining Focus

One of the greatest challenges is maintaining focus for lengthy periods of time.  Luckily, the time is punctuated with short lectures and critiques.  We generally slip on our headphones and get lost in a world of line and shape, coming up for air at lunchtime.  Occasionally there’s a mutter as we talk to ourselves, or a sigh of frustration as we miss our mark.

Slowly, we are developing our ability to see and enable our hands and pencils create the mark we want. Paper, pencil, eraser.  The simplest of tools that provide the foundation for great works of art.  What will we do with those tools?  Where will this path lead? 

“Bad attitudes and poor life skills are more detrimental to you being a successful artist than faulty shapes, values or color.”

Much like learning to play the piano, we start with the basic notes, finding our own version of middle C with a plumb line.  From there, we practice scales and small melodies of abstract shapes.  To move into chords, we must first master the basic notes.  And to do that, we must practice, and practice, and practice.

First, I will sleep.  Have a great weekend, friends.

Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art in the refurbished St, Peter's Church built in 1926.
Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art in the refurbished St, Peter’s Church built in 1926.

PS: It’s been raining all week.  Waves of water and wind.  Definitely not sunny Colorado. Thank goodness for Amazon delivery.  My vitamin D arrived Tuesday.

The Things We Take For Granted

Sitting in a grain truck, ten feet off the ground, I watch the sun set though a bank of storm clouds. Dust drifts through the air, kicked up by two combines moving in tandem across a field of wheat. A feeling of gratitude washes over me, while I simultaneously sense all that we take for granted.

My uncle, cousin, and their three hired hands work their synchronized dance of harvesting wheat, and I have the privilege of looking into their world for a moment. An average family farm on the plains of North Dakota, they grow wheat, soybeans, and canola. Having already already cleared a field to the north, they moved the equipment to the south field, and hope the impending storm continues to move north.

While I ride along, pestering him with questions, my cousin drives the grain truck and collects wheat from the combines as they work their way across the field. From there it is transferred to the waiting semi-truck trailer and hauled back to the farm. Eventually it will make its way to market.

From the outsiders view the process seems easy. The view from the driver’s seat is another story. As the dust flies through the air and I marvel at the computer screen and the size of the tires, I ask my cousin, “Do you maintain all of this equipment too?” He shrugs his shoulders as if to say, of course we do. How else would it get done? “Yep,” he says as he checks the rear camera on the console and sets the GPS to auto-drive.

The machinations of the farm, from preparing food for the workers to maintaining equipment, deciding what to plant, where to plant, when to plant, when to harvest, when to sell. And the thousands of decisions and actions that goes into this one operation swirls through my mind like a movie in fast forward.

And yet, people across the country do this very day. People run businesses that make the materials, that make the things that we need and use every day. It’s easy to forget what goes into a loaf of bread and assume it will be on the shelf.

And we know this is true for everything. When I left the house Saturday morning to drive a thousand miles across the great expanses of Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota to the northwoods of Minnesota with tears leaking out of my eyes, seeking one more embrace, telling my beloved, “I’ll see you soon. I love you,” I took it all for granted. My car, the gas stations, the quality of the road, the beauty of the rolling hills, fields of hay, wheat, sunflowers, grass, open space, even the oil fields were taken for granted.

It’s easy to assume that each of these things will be there when we need them, running in the background of our lives. That the farmers and oil workers, the construction crews and emergency responders will be there when we need them. We take for granted that each day, across our country and our world, people will get up, go to work in the morning, and do their jobs that make the world go round, just as regularly as the sun rises and sets.

Just as easily, it’s easy to take for granted that I will walk back into my home a couple of months from now and feel as if I never left. To believe that my loved one will be waiting for me, and we will pick up where we left off.

Aspen Forest, 12×12 oil on linen panel now available

Aspen Forest, oil on linen panel, 12×12 © Nelia Harper

In mid July, I was gathering my things for another yurt trip. After a fun adventure in June, I booked a second trip. This time, Andrea Gabel and I were planning a three night getaway to paint in the wilderness of State Forest State Park. We were excited about the trip and ready for some serious painting time.

The night before I was to leave, the phone rang. First of all, I rarely have the ringer volume on. Secondly, the few phone calls I get are usually robo calls. I looked down at the phone. It was my Dad. While my Dad and I get along great. He’s not one to call and ‘shoot the breeze’. Phone calls are generally limited to my birthday and bad news. Needless to say, my first thought was, “what’s wrong?” Please don’t be bad news, please don’t be bad news.

It was bad news. My cousin Jon and his wife Cara had been killed in a car accident. They were only in their late 20s. It was just a normal day. A normal drive. Good weather. A truck crossed the line, and the end was instant. Their little girl survived. Devastating news.

As you can well imagine, I was heartbroken. On the one hand, I felt relieved that my parents were ok, as well as my siblings and their families. On the other hand, I felt devastated for my aunt and uncle and the friends and family of Jon and Cara. The loss welled up and spilled over. Shocked at the news, time crawled to a near standstill.

The next day, I decided to go on our trip anyway. Time in the woods soothes my soul and quiet time felt right. And sure enough, I felt a sense of peace and calm. Especially when we came across a stand of old growth aspens rising up to the sky surrounded by wild columbine, and vistas for miles.

Andrea Gabel painting in the aspen trees.

I sat with a tree trunk, drawing for hours. We returned the next day and I did an oil sketch of the scene. Weeks later, after the Celebration of Life and a return to the every day, I revisited the idea and decided to start a fresh piece. From my studies and memory, the painting Aspen Forest developed. After finishing the painting, I realized the prominence of the small aspen tree growing next to the old, rotted trunk. Death and life. Rebirth.

Now available.

Packing, Purging and Shipping – 1 week left!

First off a huge THANK YOU! to everyone for your well wishes, orders, connections, and help these past couple of weeks.

I have officially sent off my tuition deposit, I’m still looking for a place to live, as well as a job. So far, I have managed to clean out my crawl space, donate two carloads of stuff to ARC/Goodwill, taken my car in for service, and I have almost cleaned out my storage unit. Nothing like a deadline to make me tick off all those items on the to-do list that should have been done 6 mos – 5 years ago.

Wildflower Corner, 8×10, oil on panel, plein air for Georgetown Plein Air

And! I have shipped off paintings, prints, and greeting cards to several of you. Thank you to my fellow artists, patrons, collectors, and friends for your financial support and the many connections you have in Duluth, MN.

Questions Answered

Several of you have asked some really good questions about the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art and my plans for this fall. Here are some answers to your questions.

#1 When are you leaving?

I’m planning to leave the 24th of August. I still have to find a place to live. I’m looking for a room to rent or a house share, so I pretty much have to be there in person to look at a place and meet the people. Hopefully that will come together the last week of August, and I can move in shortly after.

#2 When does school start?

School starts the 6th of September. We have a work day to begin. Everyone helps to clean, get the place set-up for working, and generally get to know everyone. Our first official day of school is the following Monday.

#3 How long is it?

The program itself is four years. Right now, I’m taking it one day at a time. If I start thinking that far ahead, I get a little panicky. So, let’s not think about that.

#4 Isn’t it really cold up there?

Well…how do you define cold? Antarctica cold when you get frostbite after standing outside for 10 minutes cold? Ummm…yeah. It gets pretty cold in December and January. What better excuse do you need to stay focused on on task?

I grew up in Northern Minnesota and I have to admit, I’m looking forward to winter. Not necessarily to sub-zero temperatures or sunset at 4pm, but to the brilliance of snow and the feeling of being alive in the elements. You might have to remind me of this when I’m complaining about how dark and cold it is in January.

#5 How did you decide on this school?

I have been looking at schools for quite some time. When I came across an interview that Jeffrey Larson did with Michael Klein from East Oaks Studio, I was quite surprised to find a school of this caliber near my hometown. I was equally surprised to see that it was on the list of approved school by the Art Renewal Center, whose mission is to support the revival of realism in the visual arts. The have approved about 80 schools around the world that teach technical skills in drawing and painting. What are the chances there would be one so close to my family?

Although I would love to study at the Florence Academy in Italy or the Grand Central Atelier in New York, I was intrigued by this little school in Duluth, MN. After listening to the interview and later visiting the school, it felt like a solid fit.

Interview of Jeffrey T. Larson

Fast forward to 0:15 to listen.

Scroll down. I have no idea why there’s a space here.

Studio Sale Continues

The studio sale continues through August 21st. The last ship date before I pack up the car and head north. There are several studies and studio paintings still available. Free shipping too!

Let me know if you have other questions. I’m planning to chronicle my journey to share this unique experience with you, as well as remember this time in my life. I hope you’ll enjoy the experience too.

Top 10 Ways to Help Nelia Attend Art School

Morning Light on Ponderosa Pine, 11×14, oil on linen panel, © Nelia Harper
1. Add to your fine art collection.  I have updated my website with a HUGE sale.  AND, free shipping/delivery is included.  Over the past two years, I have diligently studied the landscape through drawing and studying with Deborah Paris.  Perhaps you have seen a change my approach to landscape painting?

2. Start a fine art collection.  When you grow up with prints and reproductions, it’s easy to under estimate the power of owning a piece of fine art.  Seeing the bushstrokes, the vibration of color, and how the light reflects off the paint is an experience that can only be enjoyed first hand.  Now is the perfect time to start your own fine art collection.

3. Commission a piece of fine art for your yourself.  Do you have a favorite tree or location?  Would you like to have a memory of that piece hanging in your home?  I have room in my schedule for 2-3 commissions this fall.  After all, being able to paint rather than waitress would be much preferred.  Contact me to discuss your idea.  
Rocky Shore, 8x10, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper
Rocky Shore, 8×10, oil on linen, © Nelia Harper
A Hint of Spring, 12×12, oil on linen panel, © Nelia Harper
Mountain Meadow Study, 8×10, oil on panel, © Nelia Harper
4. Commission a piece of fine art as a gift.  Perhaps you and a love one share a favorite location or you have a memory you’d like to treasure.  We can work together to create the perfect gift for your loved one.

5. Give the gift of art.  Whether it’s a commemorative gift, or you’re searching for an unique gift, the gift of fine art will wow any recipient.

6. Gift Certificates.  Not ready to pick out a piece of artwork for someone else?  Give a gift certificate in any denomination and give them the joy of choosing the right piece for their home.

7. Donate.  I know several of my friends are minimalists.  No problem!  I have set up a simple way for you to contribute through donation.  No fancy website. No Go Fund Me page.  Just a simple link to donate to tuition and travel expenses.  Every little bit helps.  Whether it’s $5 or $500, you’ll receive a surprise gift in return.
Greener Pastures, oil on panel, 9×12, © Nelia Harper

8. Continue to support the journey through likes, shares, and comments on social media.  All of your interactions help to spread the word and give me moral support.  Although I’m not one for sharing many details of my life in public, knowing you are there and encouraging me, makes all the difference.

9. Connections.  Do you know anyone in the Duluth, MN area that may be hiring?  I’m looking for evening and weekend work (right now, I’m open to ideas).  Inexpensive living accommodation connections would be great too.

10. Last but certainly not least, your prayers and support.  Change is never easy and just thinking about student life gives me flashbacks to being a poor college student.  Your prayers for safe travel, good health, focus, time for study and time for family are greatly appreciated.

Last Ship Date – August 21st

A Quick Note on Frames. I have listed most oil paintings unframed and pastel paintings with the frame. Almost any piece can easily be framed for your convenience.  They range in price from $25 to $200 depending on the size of the artwork with an average of $85.
1 2 3 4 11