One of the things I most appreciate about being a painter, is that it has honed my ability to notice beauty — color beauty — just about anywhere. And so it was last month when I drove across the Great Plains of eastern Colorado and western Nebraska. Many might find the late winter landscape of brown flatland to be drab, but I found its earthy tones to be luscious in its closely hued subtleties. (I always think of these colors as “Vuillard colors” for they remind me of the palette of French post-impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard. Which is kind of funny, since Vuillard was especially known for his paintings of cozy interiors. But this earthen palette, no matter its subject, calls up “Vuillard” in my color memory.)
As I shared in my previous post, my time in Nebraska was book-ended each day by the breath-taking drama of sandhill cranes moving to and from their nighttime roost in the Platte River. The bulk of each day however was spent with a paintbrush in hand, as I drove country roads and painted Great Plains farmlands from the front seat of my car.
We in New Mexico tend to feel a bit superior to the rest of the country when it comes to natural beauty. Okay, we’re unapologetically smug. But let’s face it: The Land of Enchantment sets a pretty high bar when it comes to landscape.
That’s a given. And it’s frankly why I’ve made New Mexico my home for 20+ years.
And yet . . . I found the flatland of Nebraska in late March to radiate a quiet, stark beauty. Though some might find the unbroken straight line of the horizon uninteresting, I was fascinated by the geometry everywhere of parallel lines shooting off into a sharp chevron of a vanishing point, every corn field a perfect study of one-point perspective.
And fog! such a rarity to my sunburned eyes. I’d forgotten how its grayness subdues yet intensifies color, softens edges, and somehow brings everything in closer. As I sat in my car and mixed my colors, I found the Nebraska sky was ever-changing, the calligraphy of cranes ever curling, the gnarled twists of winter cottonwoods ever haunting.
My goal was to come home with fifteen plein air paintings. That was unrealistic, when one considers the daily need for coffeehouse letter-writing, occasional** craft-brew sampling (I am my father’s daughter, after all), and — most important of all — afternoon naps (I am my mother’s daughter, after all), fifteen paintings was pretty much out of the question.
In the end, I came home with nine paintings. Nine celebrations of Vuillard colors of a starkly beautiful landscape. Not bad.
Here they are in order of their creation:
‘Nebraska Springtime, I’ ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 1 ~ My first Nebraska painting, and one of the few paintings I’ve done with any kind of architecture. From the first parking area at the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, looking south. Note the dots of cranes grazing in the field.
‘Nebraska Springtime, II” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 1 ~ My only painting of the Platte River, this at just about high noon (so not much in the way of shadows) from just beyond the footbridge near the Ft. Kearny Rec Area. Painting en plein air is challenging, and painting water is especially challenging.
‘Nebraska Springtime, III” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 1 – from the parking lot of the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. Before leaving on my roadtrip, I had stained a bunch of painting panels dark purplish; you can see the color bleeding through all of these paintings; here it adds depth and shadow to the stubby fields.
‘Nebraska Springtime, IV” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 2, afternoon and the clouds were churning rapidly, changing shape endlessly in the time I painted this. The land was mainly in shadow until the very end when a streak of light cut across the field and also illuminated that distant gold tree.
‘Nebraska Springtime, V” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 2 ~ somewhere near Rowe Sanctuary. That was the darnedest cloud, appearing almost flat, but deep purple grey. I loved the contrast/complement of cool purple-blue in the sky with the warm ochre and gold-browns of the field.
‘Nebraska Springtime, VI” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 2 ~ from Elm Island Road, looking north to the cottonwoods of Rowe Sanctuary. Just beyond those trees lies the Platte River.
‘Nebraska Springtime, VII” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 3 ~ along Elm Island Road, there’s a pull-off and a huge wood-paneled blind, just beyond which lies a marshy spot with gnarled cottonwoods, and small pond where herds of cranes gather during the day. How to capture them? I tried small dabs of blue-grey. . .
‘Nebraska Springtime, VIII” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 3 ~ here again, along Elm Island Road . . . last evening in Nebraska. That house or barn on the right was actually white, but shaded, so it was hard to get the color. I struggled with it over and over, and finally, with great frustration, wiped the whole thing out and — voila! Loved it like that. The color may not be literally or realistically accurate, but it completely works for me.
‘Nebraska Springtime, IX” ~ by Dawn Chandler ~ oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 8″ x 10″ ~ Day 4 ~ Last morning in Nebraska . . . just had to get in one more painting, and especially try to get some sense of that fog. What color are trees in fog? (I’m still not sure). How many shades of grey can you mix (a lot more than 50!) And how do you capture dozens (if not thousands!) of birds in flight? (I opted here for scratching a pencil into the paint, at least for those smallest most distant cranes in the sky).
** I’m pretty sure this is the first time in 50+ years I’ve spelled this word correctly on the first go of it.