Planning an Art Journey

During a period of 18 months, friends and fellow artists, Sally Loughridge and Jeannie Fine (featured in the October 2008 issue of The Pastel Journal), made seven journeys along the road known as the “Air Line” in eastern Maine. Knowing that other artists might also want to explore the benefits of a painting “road trip,” the two artists compiled this advice:

At the outset of our project, we selected our theme, set a timeline and assembled supplies. Along the way, as on most journeys, we made additional discoveries that will help shape our next art exploration together. We offer these ideas as strategies for others as they create and embark on their own art journeys. Just as creating a painting is a process with distinct but related stages, designing and successfully carrying out such an art journey has stages as well.

Find Balance with a Fellow Artist

Taking your art journey with someone with whom you’re comfortable is important and will provide a solid base for your adventure. We (Sally and Jeannie) became friends through art volunteer work and then began to paint together. We both find inspiration in the landscape and love the vibrancy and immediacy of soft pastel. As artists, we’re at a similar level of growth and ability. Our project developed as a natural collaboration, rather than competition or instruction. Talking and painting together before we began the project gave us time to explore how to make it work for each of us. We considered our schedules, discussed costs as well as respective needs for privacy, quiet, working conditions and feedback. To cushion the inevitable tough moments, it helped to work with someone with a similar sense of humor. On our trips we laughed with one another about bugs, nearly impassable roads, lost supplies, unsuccessful paintings, getting lost, and Maine’s ever-changing weather.

There are many advantages to collaborating with an artistic peer for an extended period: the company; accountability; motivation to explore off the beaten track aesthetically as well as literally; and mutual constructive critique. Shared travel costs and support in seeking directions, local lore and recommendations are also benefits. Perhaps most importantly, there’s the intangible richness in sharing the visual journey in parallel play, discovery and dialogue.

Develop Your Project Theme and Structure

When developing a plan for your journey, seek out a theme that strongly engages both artists emotionally and visually. Possibilities include a geographical or historical region, a certain visual element, a time of day, a limited palette, a weather condition or a particular structure type. Our project developed after we decided to paint in an unfamiliar area about three hours from our homes. On that first trip, we were overwhelmed by the stark beauty and vastness of the Air Line region. We immediately knew we would return. You may find your theme through a deliberate search or in an “aha” moment as we did. Your project may not involve significant physical travel but rather be solely an artistic and metaphysical journey.

Before you embark on your journey, talk together about how you’ll carry out your project, much like an artist may design her composition through observation, thumbnail and value sketches before she begins to paint. For example, if you’re going to paint repeatedly at a certain locale, think about how often you’ll go and at what times of day. Make a plan that’s feasible for each of you in terms of timing, economics and travel. Commit yourselves to the project for a specific length of time and number of outings. Once your project is underway, don’t rush the experience. It will build in depth and power as you explore in a leisurely and contemplative way. Honor your plan, but acknowledge when you need or want to modify its direction or focus.

Establish Personal and Joint Goals

Before you start, set personal goals that are within reach yet require “stretching.” These may involve aspects of artistic exploration and development, enjoyment and work output. We knew we wanted to paint unfamiliar landscapes, study the region visually for at least a year, deepen our observational and artistic skills, and have fun together. Joint goals around the collaboration and the resulting body of work will further enrich your experience. Most of all, open yourself up to discovery and change.

Decide What to Take

We traveled in four seasons to remote terrain, traversing barrens, bogs and timber plantations. Comfort and safety items were essential, including water, clothing layers, rain protection, hat, bug repellant, sunscreen, food and a cell phone. Once mired on a rutted dirt road, we quickly realized that on future trips we should bring the other artist’s four-wheel-drive vehicle.

To record your journey, feelings and observations, bring a camera, map, sketchbook and journal. Most importantly, pare down your art supplies; bring only what you need and can carry comfortably. Consider value and temperature as you limit your soft pastels to a manageable number. Working on small, rigid panels is ideal in the plein air situation. If you’re using paper, bring clips or tape to secure it to a board. Carry an easel that’s light, sturdy and sets up quickly.

Savor the Experience

As our project unfolded, a rhythm emerged. We found ourselves wanting to both return to favorite vistas and to explore new areas, trails and waterways. As we became more familiar with the region, we began to see more clearly—not detail per se—but the ever changing and always alluring dance of tone, color and temperature. Returning again and again under varied conditions kept our eyes fresh and our awe palpable.

We learned where the locals ate and where the rare bathrooms were. Between our trips, we researched the history, people and wildlife of the region. We also began to ask area residents for personal stories and favored locations. We found several people to contact about local weather conditions and events, a process far more personal and engaging than searching the web.

We stuck to our plan with the exception of one day when driving was impossible. Barring such a blizzard, honor your plan and goals. Inclement weather will be a factor in how many layers you wear and the mood of your paintings, but ideally will not deter you.

Recording our journeys in multiple ways enhanced our experience and insight. We logged our stops on a worn gazetteer, especially because we were exploring unfamiliar territory. A journal entry for each trip noted weather, light, sites, painting process, feelings and more. Between trips we talked constantly about our responses to the landscape. We painted en plein air on small panels whenever possible. If the weather prohibited painting outdoors, we could sketch from the car or under an overhang. We took many photographs. Back in our studios, sketches, field studies and photographs served as memory and emotional triggers as we created our larger works.

Celebrate Your Art Journey

Celebrating your project and finding a measure of closure is important, be it a gallery exhibit or an informal sharing of work with friends in the studio or living room. We were privileged to have our paintings exhibited at a fine mid-coast Maine gallery, yet later realized that the deepest satisfaction came from the ongoing process of collaboration, discovery and creation. We were literally excited throughout the 18 months of our project and miss it still. We’re dreaming about and scheming for our next.

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