19 March 2017 found me discovering a scene to paint, among the branches of White Cedar, south-east of our house in Bishops Mills, Ontario. This is a line of Cedars between a brushy old field and a natural clearing that Fred calls the "nutrient depletion glade". This is a project to preserve the historic character of our agriculture-impoverished, shallow-soil parkland - at least in one place - while elsewhere our land management activities gradually add nutrients.
The shallow soil over bedrock was thoroughly stripped of nutrients by grazing livestock. Very little was returned to the land, so now, nearly a century later, bare soil is still visible between patches of lichens and tufts of herbs and grasses.
In my painting, you can see where some of the trunks in this clump of Cedars were cut a couple of years ago, to drag back to the barnyard as browse for our milking Goats, and to deplete the glade of the nutrients the trunks and foliage contained. All broken twigs and foliage were carefully gathered up after the cutting. Fred also rakes up the fallen leaves under the Cedars in the fall, to remove their nutrients from the glade, and uses them to mulch our Rhubarb, which I'll soon be painting when spring finally comes.
This was a frustrating outing, as I was all prepared to do a painting "en plein air" two days later, on a sunny, calm day of 5C. On the 17th of March I had dashed out just before sunset to photograph the fresh deep snow left by our March blizzard, and now, two days later, returned to the site of my favourite of those photos.... But when Fred and I got out there at around 16h00 this afternoon, first the spot was hard to find and we had to follow my boot prints back and forth. Then I set myself up with the "pochade" I'd designed to support my canvas and pallette, water and brushes, tied about my neck and waist, while Fred went back to the house for a pair of pruning shears to cut the Cedar branches that were in the way.
He hadn't been gone for very long when I realized that I had taken my reference photo from a kneeling position. So I knelt on the cold, packed snow for a bit, painting the Cedar trunks, until I realized that the original configuration of the delicious sleeves and lumps of snow on the Cedar branches really had slumped and shrunk so much that I found myself paralyzed with indecision about how much trunk and branch had been showing when I'd planned the painting, and how much had been covered with snow (it wasn't entirely clear in my sketch)!
However, this would be showing just fine in the photo I'd taken on the 17th - so I packed up and walked back to the house (a rather crest-fallen plein air painter) to continue my work indoors from the reference photo on my iPad. I felt like a wuss! I could have stayed out, and even chosen a different scene - probably could have gotten a fair bit of it done onsite, but I already have all the trunks and branches blocked in with dark brown, over a yellowish burnt sienna underpainting on a square linen canvas.
Around 16h50 I stopped to make supper. The next step will be painting the snow, shaded in the foreground under the Cedars, and bright in the background through the lacy screen of Cedar boughs.
I wonder how many other plein air artists have such a hard time getting their paintings well underway onsite? So often, either it takes me so long to decide on a spot that there's not enough time left to do more than the underpainting and scratch in the composition... or else it begins to rain or snow, or the biting insects become intolerable, or a wind comes up and blows my umbrella and easel over.
I have a heady feeling of triumph against all odds whenever a painting is finished (or mostly finished) onsite. The results are always worth the challenge. Paintings done en plein air, in real time on site, suffering the elements and racing the changes in lighting and weather, teach me far more than reference photos ever could... besides, there's the adventure itself, and the stories to tell!
Dear supporters and patrons of my art,
The 8 x 8 inch original oil painting, "Spring Snow Among Cedars" is available for purchase at $400. If you would like to purchase it, please contact Aleta