Thoughts from the Studio: Nature Big and Small

One of my great joys in life is sitting in my summer garden, my cat at my feet, surrounded by flowering plants. Sometimes I’ll have a library book in hand, but more often I’ll just sit, listening to the hummingbirds sing in the lilac branches above my head, enjoying the peacefulness of being outside with nature. It’s a small urban garden, nestled in the very heart of Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Given the bustle of activity just outside my garden walls, you’d not expect to discover this little oasis. It reminds me of the walled gardens you might find in Sevilla, Istanbul or Saigon, where you leave behind the noisy business of the street once you pass through the gates.

I love flowers. A few years ago I decided I’d grow my own. Since the shade pattern has gradually increased as my tree canopy has expanded and buildings have risen up around me, I’ve resorted to potting up annuals and flowering perennials into containers arranged in the center of the garden, where the direct sunlight can reach. Adding to my collection every year, I’ve accumulated peonies, canna, dahlias, snapdragons, irises, a miniature fig tree, hydrangeas, lavender, pansies, hanging baskets of coleus, lobelia, stock, fuchsias, all sitting in a tiny garden ringed with perennials and fruit trees. Everything planted here can be eaten by either birds or humans. Except the flowers, reserved for the hummers, pollinators and my visual enjoyment.

My cat, Fuzz, enjoying the peaceful garden with me.

My cat, Fuzz, enjoying the peaceful garden with me.

All this gazing at my garden brings me to the topic of plein air painting. “En plein air” means painting outdoors, in the open air. It has an almost cultish following, and there are those painters who would rather paint outside than in an indoor studio any chance they get. However, living in the drizzly and cold Pacific Northwest, I am a studio painter, meaning I prefer working indoors in a controlled light setting, where my work space is laid out in an orderly fashion, my brushes, Gamsol, palette knives just so. But as I sit in my summer garden, admiring how the sunlight falls across the peony leaves to create a myriad of greens and blues, I understand why a painter would feel the strong urge to capture that magic on canvas en plein air. Such a feeling of awe is what compels any painter to paint.

And last month, on a whirlwind trip through Sun Valley, Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, I came to understand even more why a painter might be motivated to leave the comforts of her studio and the convenience of controlled lighting to stand in a field, far from a toilet, gnats sticking to the paint on her palette. 

I was the guest of my old friends from high school, P and M, who now live in Ketchum, Idaho. Both are active outdoors people; M and I joined the National Ski Patrol together when we were eighteen, and her husband P is an experienced mountaineer who’s taught rock climbing and climbed all over the world. Both have made countless trips to Yellowstone and Jackson, so it was fun to have such experienced guides. (Another old high school friend, C, kindly agreed to cat sit so I could make the trip). 

Our trip took us the spectacular scenery of Old Faithful, the Grand Tetons, and the wondrous sight of a huge bison sitting outside my cabin at Lake Yellowstone. 

I now understand why a painter feels compelled to paint plein air. The sheer magnificence of the scenery and wildlife makes your heart burst with awe and you need to express this feeling of wonder by attempting to capture some of its magic on your easel. If I lived there, I would definitely become a wildlife and landscape painter. I’ve never been particularly drawn to the aesthetics of the genre until now, but after seeing such magnificence I would burst if I couldn’t express my feelings about it on the easel. Just as a writer processes the world by writing about it, so a painter processes the world by painting it; it’s a way to try to mentally get a handle on the feelings of sheer awe and wonder and magnificence that these things evoke inside you. 

This is the closest I ever got to a bison, in Jackson Hole…

This is the closest I ever got to a bison, in Jackson Hole…

The bison outside my cabin in Yellowstone was the size of a VW bug!

The bison outside my cabin in Yellowstone was the size of a VW bug!

We also hit almost every art gallery in Sun Valley and Jackson Hole. In Jackson, many of the galleries feature western art (think cowboys and Indians), but there are some great contemporary art galleries as well. Back in Ketchum, my friends introduced me Tom Bassett who owns Wood River Fine Arts with his wife Sandy. While chatting with Tom, he and I realized we’d both been ski instructors at the Mt. Spokane ski school, a long time ago. 

However, my friend P, an avid fly fisherman, had a great art marketing idea for me. He explained that fly fishermen/women spend hours just standing in a stream, staring down at the river stones with a rod in their hands, and when they’re back at their work desks once their vacation is over, they’d love nothing more than to have a painting to gaze at to mentally take them back to their place in the stream. So on our drive back from Jackson Hole we made a point to stop at some fly fishing lodges and I’m looking to get more of my paintings out into the fly fishing world. Let me know if you know of a lodge I should contact, I am excited about this new development in my art journey! 

Brittany Torres