Last weekend, I took a short course on plein air oil painting in Yellowstone with Daniel Hidalgo of the Idaho Art Lab. It was my first time using oils since Painting I at Denison University, fourteen years ago.
I must have had an urge to impersonate Thomas Moran, since I bought an oils set and brushes specifically for the course. I must conclude that—with its toxic chemicals and long drying times—oil is impractical for a man who lives out of a car and has no studio, save perhaps a corner of his small and temporary bedroom. (Watercolor, gouache, even acrylic omit the hazardous fumes and are quicker to dry.) But I appreciate the vibrancy of the colors, which is said to be a strength of the traditional paint. And the challenges can be overcome, for those artists for whom oil holds unique power.
We painted at Lamar Buffalo Ranch and Mammoth Hot Springs, and at the Devil's Hoof near Tower Falls. By the third painting, I became wildly expressionistic, holding my long wide brushes near their tail end, as I tend to do when presented with a canvas and colors to mix. I must wonder if my painting looks more like a forest fire than the spire formations of welded volcanic ash which we set out to depict. It was good not be painting alone, for a change.
On the last day, in the morning near sunrise, I sat on the back porch overlooking Lamar Valley and its buffalo herd, and saw all the highlights and shadows, crimsons and indigos in the rolling plains. I told Daniel, who stood before the overlook sipping coffee, that after only three days of painting, I saw the land differently, in its many colors, as though just noticing an autumn in Vermont. With every activity, every conversation, and every television commercial, our brains form new connections. After working in a nursery in Pennsylvania for a few months, I had a new awareness of the landscaped suburban backyards, their types and arrangements of plants. After drawing forest scenes in black and white for my latest comics story, I became more cognizant of the forests around me, the pillar-like or serpentine pine trunks, the light and shade. And with paint in hand, I see more of the world's color.
The right side of the brain is associated with pictures, feelings, compassion, and empathy, while the left is associated with words, numbers, and logic. The world's great minds—artists and scientists alike—have developed both right- and left-brained skills. If only the public schools would learn about the importance of this balance, they might stop cutting the arts with every budget shortfall. And it is wise to remember that the great places in nature are not just science labs, but art labs as well.