Not such a bad thing…

Last month I wrote about going to paint outdoors on a very cold day. To those of you who wrote with concern about my sanity, I have a confession to make: once I got out in the bitter cold that day, I just couldn’t make myself sit in the snow to paint. I took photos instead and then retreated to my cozy studio next to the fireplace. Not such a bad thing. And that is a choice an artist makes when weather or circumstances make plein air painting an exceptionally difficult challenge. 

Photograph: frozen pond, Arapaho Bend Natural Area, Fort Collins, Colorado

Traveling in Arizona over the holidays, I ran into more such challenges.  We were driving from Winslow to Tubac, near the Mexican border 5 hours away. I’d intended to sketch along the way, but it was already early afternoon, we needed to get there by nightfall and stopping seemed ill-advised. However, the Naco Paleo Site, a 300 million-year-old shale/limestone formation where the public can dig freely for fossils, lay in-between, just off our route, and the Siren Call of the Brachiopods was impossible for my husband to resist. Left turn off Highway 87, 10 miles east to an unmarked parking lot and voila! a hillside of snow-encrusted mud full of brachiopods! The hill, once part of an ancient sea, now lies at 5,000 feet above sea level and is dotted with ponderosa pines. The challenge? 30 minutes to whip out my paints and see what I could get down on paper, 30 minutes for my husband to play paleontologist before we had to get back on the road. 

What did I learn? Sometimes a time limit is not such a bad thing. It forces you to focus; no futzing around with where or what to paint; just sketch what’s in front you. Which is exactly what I did, from the passenger side of the car, door open, feet dangling over the edge of the seat, eyeball to eyeball with a forest of ponderosas. 

P0nderosa Pines, Naco Paleo Site, Payson, AZ – ink & watercolor on paper, in a Hand*Book sketchbook, 5 x 8

And what about the fossil collecting? A sackful of treasures went home with us. A few examples:

Brachiopods and Crinoid, Naco Paleo Site, Payson, AZ – ink & watercolor on paper, in a Hand*Book sketchbook, 5 x 6

The next challenge was rain. Having trekked all the way to the southernmost corner of Arizona to paint, I expected the Chihuahuan desert sun to do what a desert sun is supposed to do…shine. Instead dark clouds hung low over the Santa Rita Mountains and a cold drizzle fell steadily day after day. Painting the landscape with watercolors was out of the question. But this time the Siren Song came from Madera Canyon, a National Forest preserve in the Santa Ritas. Here’s what the canyon’s website advertised: “With lofty mountain peaks, forested slopes, seasonal streams, and an amazing variety of plants and wildlife, Madera Canyon… is rated the third best birding destination in the United States. Madera’s hiking trails are applauded throughout the Southwest, and vary from  gentle walking paths in the lower canyon, to steep, expert trails leading to the top of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson.”  How could we pass all that up? We donned raincoats, chose a trail that offered a quick retreat to the car, if necessary, and called the cameras  into action. In this miserable weather, I wasn’t inspired to photograph landscape; instead I focused on the forest floor whose colors glowed in the wetness and low light. Darks, lights and subtle earth tones played off against each other revealing appealing patterns of leaves and twigs that cried out to be painted back in the studio.

Forest Floor, Madera Canyon, Tubac, AZ – ink & watercolor on paper, in a Hand*Book sketchbook, 5 x 8

So, what did I learn? Sometimes not being able to paint what you assumed you’d paint is not such a bad thing either. Which leads me to this: I truly believe that painting on-site, immersed in nature, is the best way to paint. The camera cannot reproduce what the human eye can see, the studio cannot replicate the smells, sounds and feelings of the outdoors, but if working in the studio is the only way to get an image on paper or canvas, so be it. The important thing is making the work, and being flexible, adapting to challenging circumstances as they arise. It’s a dance I’m willing to do, because sometimes, what happens is not such a bad thing.



  1. Thank you Marilyn for your insights and inspiration.

  2. Nancy Schwartz says:

    What a nice reflection of some of your travels, Marilynn! And what a beautiful painting of value and leaves in Forest Floor, Madera Canyon! Many greetings to you from Northern Wisconsin and the UP!

  3. Jan Latona says:

    Marilynn, Your writing is so enjoyable. I love reading your blog posts and look forward to your book. I would love to join the Wisconsin workshop, however I will be camped out in Wyoming that week in anticipation of the solar eclipse the concluding weekend of your class. Darn.

  4. Sara Roseman says:

    I loved hearing about your travels in southern area that has intrigued me. I’d like to visit there. Lovely drawings of the area!

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