Bullseye: On Painting Plein Air by Wes Martin

When I was a kid, my parents bought us a dart board. It wasn’t one of those pulped wood affairs, which retain holes and are usually found clattering on the back of the bedroom door. This was a pro-tool, with real self-healing fibres, encased in its own wooden box, to be displayed proudly. The sparse dining room, cleared of hindrances and the oche set like a runway. This was the 80’s. Darts was big; Eric Bristow had a little finger; Jocky Wilson was inadvertently on top of the pops, and Jim Bowen a Sunday teatime favourite. My sisters and I would practice and play for hours, days, years even. A target before us, it wasn’t about hitting the bullseye, none of it ever was. 501, quick mental maths, treble twenties, finish on a double. However hard we tried, we never really came close to our heroes. They were razor sharp, masters, effortlessly owning the occasion. I really loved that board. Eventually, my parents bought an expensive dining table. Replaced old furniture. The oche became cluttered, the board a nuisance. Eventually, clearing it for a game became too dangerous in many ways. Technology crept into our lives and I rode off on the back of Pacman and Space Invaders. 

A strange analogy for art and wild camping? For slowing the pace of our lives? For divesting of the mental strictures that ail us? Well, I think not. Bear with me. I’ll try not to harm too many metaphors along the way. The thing is, as an artist, in my own humble way, and despite the rigours of life, I still have a wee vision of where I want to be. I know what my perfect painting looks and feels like. I know if I paint and paint, tirelessly, any shortcoming in talent will be overcome by a gradual, empirical slog up the mountain of desire. Some experts say that if you expend 10,000 hours practicing your craft, you can become expert at almost anything. I kind of believe it. When I do create a good painting and someone remarks how talented I am (not too often!), I fall to my default way of thinking: ‘Yes, because I’ve spent years in front of an easel, not because I was born with the ability’. Eric Bristow wasn’t born with a direct connection to the treble twenty and the nine dart finish! I didn’t get this as a kid. I was still about 9,500 hours away from that nine dart finish when I gave up. I think ‘talent’ is just a meaningful flourish or a way of presenting your vision. A character trait. The real work is done out there, on that Sisyphean mountain of toil. And there’s the real kicker. We never really get to the summit of our own personal mountains, there is no rest. Everyone who enjoys the hike invariably looks across the ridge to the adjoining peaks and considers striding out for that next summit. Just a bit further. The next hit. 

Can you see where I’m going with this? Yeah, I know. As an avid explorer of mountains, these metaphorical massifs always serve to remind me of the struggles, joys, woes, and dangers of life. When I stride out with a tent or a bivi bag and sweat my way up a mountain in the dark, fall to my knees in the gloom and hunker down for the night, I know there will be a payoff. To watch the rising sun from a mountain side; or walk through cumulus clouds cocooning a mountain ridge; even listening to the rain on the stretched nylon of a tent;  there is something so unutterably ‘of the moment’ and ‘distilled’ about these times that it’s hard to ignore. Those amongst us who are reflective and mindful enough will take adversity and let it inform the rest of the journey. Easier said than done. Broken ankles and tent poles eventually make for stronger hearts out on the hills. It’s about sticking out the journey, getting your 10,000 hours in and enjoying the ride. With this in mind, as an artist and a lover of wildcamps and the outdoors, it was only a matter of time before my painting gear was packed alongside my tent and taken out to play.

I’ve read much about ‘plein air’ painters over the years. Man, it drove me nuts at college: Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh etc, etc. All out there, battling nature, reflecting the world face on. Personally, my favourite plein air painters would be closer to home. W. Heaton Cooper for instance. The Lakeland watercolourist. Photos of him and his easel out before some Lakeland or Alpine ridge used to fire my imagination. And what a painter! I love his work and indeed his accompanying words. Alfred Wainwright, though working from photos, always astonishes me with his drawings. Every line earned out in the field, on the mountain side. You know these artists have a connection. A love, even, of the subject, and their art is their love letter, a mark of gratitude and a gracious nod of thanks. Since my college days I’ve therefore dabbled in plein air painting and drawing. In forests, fields, mountains and shore lines. From painting Blackpool Tower on a busy promenade to sitting before an Oak in a quiet forest. It’s an activity that is still secondary to my studio work, but something I am re-engaging with. I mean to turn dabbling into ‘practice’. The only way is to stop thinking and do. 

Newlands sketches  -AWM

Newlands sketches  -AWM

Last December I wild camped on Martcrag Moor. The nights are long, 16 hours or so around solstice, and one needs ways of whiling away the hours, so I packed a sketch book and a head torch, as I had no room for paints and easel. This was unbelievably the first time I’d taken any art related implements on a camp with me. I should have packed gloves....very little drawing was done after sunset. Cold fingers and a darkness thick enough to suffocate saw to that. The second time, in Spring I took a converted cigar ‘pochade’ box, a photographic tripod, a wooden folding chair, an umbrella AND gloves. Hurrah, my first paintings, out in the Newlands valley. To say I was over equipped, and overburdened by my hideously heavy rucksack would be an understatement. I didn't enjoy it. Back, literally, to the drawing board. I could feel those mistakes informing my next outing. There now follows a list, of sorts:

New, tiny Snugpack sleeping bag,
 wee Gorilla tripod,
Sit mat,
Lightweight tent,
Upcycled cardboard boxes cut to size to paint on,
Paintbrush handles cut down,
‘Pochade’ box discarded in favour of a drybag,
Paints reduced to a tube of just black and white and/or burnt sienna and Ultramarine, 
 Turps clipped into its airtight pot. 

Off we go. Note to self, ‘airtight’ doesn’t necessarily denote waterproof or liquid tight. Half way up the hill and one new sleeping bag engorged with the decanted contents of my turps container later...the Ziplock bag proving laughably ineffective too, as secondary measure. Back home. More resolve. More determination, and a reluctant change from oils to acrylics, and therefore from turps to water. Oh, and a metal watertight container.

painting kit

painting kit

The last and most recent outing I did before writing this was by far the most enjoyable. I’d ironed out those newbie ruffles and, with a keen eye on the weather, set out for Gummer’s How, a small, friendly knoll in south Cumbria. I set camp just before the ‘golden hour’ (the hour before sunset, or after sunrise) and sat alone and painted. It felt good to have arrived at a more comfortable place. I like to be alone painting. Mountain and hill tops at sunset are as good a place as any for these conditions. There is a sense that everyone has left, and that the mountain is yours for the evening: bliss. DEET infused midge repellent on, it’s time to start. I paint monotone in either black and white, or just degrees of burnt sienna/ultramarine. These outdoor paintings serve as underpaintings or studies for bigger works. Working like this I can paint tonally, and concentrate on the ‘bones’ of the scene before me. Working on cardboard gives a freedom and a non-precious mindset from the outset, while the mid brown acts as a perfect tinted ground. Environmentally too, the box is ticked and of course money saved. Those precious Golden Hours slip by very quickly when you are in the zone, so to speak. You learn very quickly painting before the subject, especially if you allow yourself not to be too precious, and accept that the biggest steps are taken through trial and error. 

When the sun slips over the horizon, the brushes set down, the jet-boil goes on, coffee is brewed, brandy poured from a Nalgene lab bottle and paintings laid out on the sleep mat to dry, out of the wind. Time slows again now. Skies darken, colours mellow in the gloaming, reds and yellows overhead wash away with the cooling coffee and softening brandy. Senses heighten as the nocturnal world awakens. Foxes, owls, bats, you can hear and sense them all. Midges subside and birds roost. Paintings dry and are packed away. I slide into my sleeping bag and set my alarm for 4.30am. Another golden hour awaits. It is never hard waking to good conditions on a wildcamp. Even more so with five small squares of card and a few brushes for company. And it was a stunner the next morning.

I am planning and formulating more trips and better ways of kitting myself for these combination painting/wildcamps. Book-ending a day with an overnighter is one thing, but I need to figure the logistics of multi-day trips. Whatever comes, it’s on the whole an enjoyable way for me to combine two things I love in life, to develop as an artist: to engage further with nature, and  to explore the inner and the outer worlds as I find them. I do find myself increasingly doing more with less, regardless of the outcome. Stopping to look. Taking time to be still, painting forces these things. I enjoy the journey as much as ever, but now I’m finding new ways of embracing the destination too. I’m metaphorically clearing the oche again and looking at the dartboard. It’s still worth working towards my 10,000 hours, and as I said earlier, it’s not always about hitting the bullseye.

Author - Wes Martin

You can see more of Wes' adventures and his beautiful art (available for sale on Etsy) on his own Blog, Facebook and Instagram as well as his musings on Twitter.