Emilie Lee in the Great Wide Open of California
Emilie Lee is an intrepid artist living out a wanderlust life on the road as a painter and explorer. She’s been a subject of our Artist HQ series and given us great tips for winter plein air painting and here she tells us all about her artful adventures while painting the redwoods of California!
Getting Into the Groove
My favorite way to get in a good painting zone is to take a solo road trip with my dog, Honey. I pack my car with food and camping gear and pick a destination where I won’t be disturbed for at least three or four days.
Without the distractions of social engagements, errands, or the routines of daily life, I can happily indulge in painting from sunrise to sunset. During these focused bursts of productivity, I can respond to sparks of inspiration that I often don’t have time for in my everyday life. It’s a chance to explore my painting practice on a deeper level, learning and applying new ideas at a rapid pace.
A Meaningful Place
Just recently, I set aside six days to drive up the California Coast to Sonoma County where my cousins have a cattle ranch. I had been there for family gatherings over the years, but always visiting from the east coast and prioritizing family time.
After moving to California a year ago, making the seven hour drive to Sonoma seemed relatively easy, so I blocked off a week in my calendar to make it happen. Located near Sonoma Coast State Park, this area is characterized by wide open rolling hills that lead to rocky beaches. It is common for a thick layer of fog to blanket the coast while a mile uphill, the open meadows are bathed in bright sunlight.
While foggy beach cliffs and sunny vistas were part of the appeal, my main goal for this trip was to paint in a secluded grove of redwoods that is a special place for our family to spend time together.
Honey, my family and I hiked for forty five minutes past grazing cattle, making our way downhill into a deep ravine. Following a small stream, we found the place: a cathedral of ancient redwood trees that have never been logged due to the inaccessible terrain. Our conversations and chatter stopped as we arrived. We all seemed to be soaking in the beauty of this hidden world.
Painter Be Aware!
As soothing and tranquil as this magical place sounds, it came with a caveat, for it was known mountain lion territory. For ten years I had dreamed of painting these redwoods, and I knew that I when I did, I would just have to put up with the mountain lions, real or imagined.
Fear is something I am often reasoning with in my life. As a rock climber and a snowboarder I know how to read the terrain and the weather, assessing my level of risk and making informed decisions to stay safe.
In this situation, I told myself that these cats had plenty of cows to eat if they were hungry, and that mountain lion attacks on humans were almost unheard of. My cousins further assured me that in their ten years of living here, the cats have always been extremely shy and had never even attacked their livestock.
Plein air Checklist
+Know your environment: do your research on the terrain, the local wildlife you could encounter and the weather.
+Tell someone where you’ll be: call mom or phone a friend but also stop at a ranger’s station and say hi and let them know your whereabouts. Extra step? Tuck a note describing your situation (when you left and where you’ll be) under the windshield wiper of your car so if you get lost, help can better locate you.
+Pack water and more water. Bring twice what you think you need–that just might be enough.
Getting Down to Some Painting
Feeling somewhat convinced, I set out on my mission to paint in the forest. I loaded up a large backpack with enough water, food, and warm layers to get me through the day. I brought Honey’s roll-up dog bed, because she is a princess and doesn’t like it on the wet ground.
For four days in a row, I painted in the redwoods about five hours a day, sometimes stopping to make another painting sketch along the hike home.
For the most part, I was totally absorbed though my reverie was broken one afternoon when Honey started barking under her breath, as if to say “something sketchy is out there!” With my heart pounding, I scanned the forest but never caught sight of anything. I’ll never know if there was a mountain lion watching us, but by day four of my redwoods expedition I was done testing my luck!
Getting the Most Out of My Sessions
+I vary the sizes of my painting sketches and don’t hesitate to paint small so I can create vignettes that catch my eye that won’t take me forever to create.
+Change it up as the light changes. The passage of time can be your friend not your enemy if you are willing to be nimble at the easel and start anew quickly.
+As I mentioned, I stopped on my way out of the forest after I thought I was done painting for the day. Look over your shoulder to see what you’ve missed and give yourself time on the return journey to stop and paint something you won’t know is there until you backtrack.
From Forest to Beach
On day five, I was so excited to paint at the beach for a change. I treated myself to a cappuccino and picked a painting spot that was a short walk from my car. It felt quite luxurious after four days of steep, long hikes with a heavy pack and the stress of staying alert for wildlife.
After five days I had made nine paintings. I felt more than satisfied with that and since then I’ve been working on a studio painting of the redwoods using my plein air paintings as reference. The canvas is 24” x 44” and working at this size has challenged me to apply everything I learned from my time in the redwood grove.
It’s exciting to see a big canvas come to life and I couldn’t have done it without those four days immersed in that forest!
Learning Mountainscape Painting
Follow another wandering artist, this time pastelist Aaron Schuerr, into the Rocky Mountains for a plein air painting adventure!
Instantly download your copy of Plein Air Painting Workshop in Pastel: Mountainscape today!