Practice Plein Air: A Cave near Chalk Creek Falls

Acrylic on 9x12" paper. Color sketch of a cave along the Lampasas River near Chalk Ridge Falls.
Acrylic on 9×12″ paper. Color sketch of a cave along the Lampasas River near Chalk Ridge Falls.

In preparation for the Appalachain Trail, I’m going to be doing a lot more plein air sketches just as I’d do on the trail. There’s no expensive wood paint boxes, no easels… just dirt to sit in, a ziplock sandwich bag with supplies, a couple of bushes and acrylic paper. It’s the real deal.

The experience: For the month of June, I’ll be hiking a section of the AT from the NC/GA border to Hot Springs, NC. Before any big trek, there’s always a lot of questions in my mind, and this trip is no different. I’m going alone again, but this time I don’t expect to meet many others along the trail. Will I get lonely? Will this make the trip less meaningful? This will be more of a hike to get used to painting and journaling along the trail and figuring out how to pack for this. Will I be able to paint well? When will I know to stop and paint something? Do I need to have set points to paint beforehand? What if, what if, what if…
With these questions in mind, I went to hike a bit down a trail along the Lampasas River starting at Chalk Ridge Falls (Belton, TX). Hopefully it’ll help relieve some doubts just to practice. After walking through Chalk Ridge area and heading down a narrow path alongside the Lampasas River, the trail started disappearing with 3 ft grass and vines almost one nile down the trail. I had high hope to get in at least 5 miles, so I battled vines, crawled over fallen trees, looking for any signs of a former path there was nothing more to follow. Frustrated, I turned around to head back when I saw a well marked deer trail up the bluff. Out of curiosity, I went up and found a beautiful 20-30 ft limestone buff with a big cave entrance! To a rock climber – adventurer, this is no less than opening doors to a big church and hearing the Handel’s Messiah song “Allelujah” being belted out. My imagination reeling with not only the cave, but months of potential bouldering (rock climbing below 15 ft)!
The limestone bluff with a cave! (the rock was a pink color that stood out from the green below...iPhone couldn't keep up with the lighting)
The limestone bluff with a cave! (the rock was a pink color that stood out from the green below…iPhone couldn’t keep up with the lighting)
nature provided painting studio, complete with termite-wood brush holder.
nature provided painting studio, complete with termite-wood brush holder.

It was the answer I was looking for. It was a moment that made me re-experience the trail in 2011 from Georgia to North Caroliina and assured me beyond words that the AT will be every bit the adventure even if I’m alone. Not only that, this was a place to remember; a place to paint. I found soft soil where deer had bedded down under a tree, pulled out my supplies and painted the cave entrance. I didn’t worry about the quality of the painting, because I realized it’s not about the painting. It was about the moment, the experience of assurance, inspiration and the comfort that only comes from feeling that connection to nature. About ten minutes into the painting, I saw a huge buzzard perch about thirty feet above, heard the leaves rustling from armadillos, birds everywhere in the trees, water trickling down the river, wind in trees … I was in the moment. Free.

Artist Stuff: Regular Acrylic paper that has a thin sealed film over it is the best. I use 9×12″ pages splitting the top of the page for the painting; bottom of the page from the pallet. #6 flat and #20/0 detail brush is all that’s needed. To keep the paints from drying too quickly, I spray water/extender mix when the paint on the “pallet” starts to dry. It also help to put a blob of paint down on the pallet rather than smearing it on to help it stay wet longer. For water, I use a Gatorade bottle and fill the cap with water, rinsing the brushes often. The paper was partially in the sun, so I folded the cover of the pad over like a hat bill (works great). That’s it! Simple, light weight and cheap.
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