The Field Study

North St. Vrain Creek, 16 x 20, oil
North St. Vrain Creek, 16 x 20, oil

The moment I finished the plein air field study, I knew I needed to do a studio piece. So intrigued by the scene was I. The evening light was changing rapidly and I only had 20-30 minutes to complete the field study. I stood in the snow along the banks of the North St. Vrain Creek quickly matching colors and values of the scene in front of me. I was thinking of nothing else for those few moments.


I had begun my outing earlier that afternoon. I donned my snowshoes and began my trek along the Wild Basin trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. I wasn’t sure what I would find to paint. I had never been to that part of the park before. I had a few ideas of what I was hoping to find, though. As I awkwardly walked along the snow packed trail, I was full of excitement. I loved being in the mountains. I loved the fresh, clean snow. Painting in such a place is always pleasurable.


About a half an hour into the hike, I came upon an area with great potential. I left the trail and quickly sank to my thighs in the powder. I trudged along toward the bank of the creek, hoping to find an inspiring scene to paint. The water was dark against the snow, yet clear. I could see the rocks at the bottom; the colors brilliantly contrasting against the glare of the snow.


I made my way around a willow, whose branches stretched out above the creek. It was difficult maneuvering with a 50 lb pack on my back. I wasn’t sure where the bank of the creek was because of the deep snow. Only small portions of it were visible. Most of the creek was buried beneath the snow and ice, while branches and limbs were waiting to ensnare me.


Determining that I would not find a suitable spot to paint, I began making my way back to the trail. My snowshoe caught a branch and I found myself sprawled upon the snow. One leg was stretched out before me beneath a heavy load of snow, my other leg was caught in the branch behind me and the weight of my backpack made it nearly impossible to lift myself in to an upright position. Yet after a moment of rest, I was able to get myself up and out of the entanglement.


About another hour up the trail, I saw a ridge that I hoped would afford me a great panorama of the Wild Basin and the ominous peaks to the west. I had caught a few glimpses of the peaks as I hiked, but in the depths of the wooded canyon, little was visible other than the forest floor. Once again, I chose to venture off the packed trail and began to scurry up a steep slope. Previous winds had blown the snow around so that there were areas of bare grass and rock adjacent to deep drifts. It was a strenuous climb. Once I reached the top of the ridge, I was disappointed to find that my panorama was obscured by still more trees. I did find a few promising clearings, but they likewise proved less than ideal.


I was getting frustrated at this point. It had been about two hours, and the afternoon was wearing down. I had yet to begin a painting. I was just about ready to settle on something that was moderately inspiring, when I decided to quit trying to force something that wasn’t there.


I descended the steep slope back down to the trail. This time, I opened my eyes to the intricacies of the forest rather than trying to look beyond. I began to notice the birds. I saw animal tracks. I could smell the aroma of pine. I heard the babble of the creek. I was enthralled by the beauty and sublimity around me. I paused at the top of an embankment above the creek and was fascinated by the dark patterns of water as it played hide and seek in the snow. The foreground was in shadow, and created a dramatic effect as the late sunlight illuminated selected pines, as if to spotlight the stars of the show. The trees on the opposing mountain ridge were just catching the light on the very tips.


Though, not what I had set out to paint, this is what I had come for. I worked my way down to the creek to find a good vantage point. Quickly, yet controlled, I painted the scene before me. I was responding to the moment. I was giddy and wide eyed. The calm serenity of the shadowed foreground contrasted nicely against the warm excitement of the sunlit middle ground. The painting flowed off the tip of my brush. I was in heaven.


I could have easily painted a scene similar to this one from the side of the road. But I would have never seen it. When I immerse myself in the landscape, I begin to see it differently. I begin to hear and feel the subtleties. It is as if I become a part of the landscape rather than an observer. As I become much more keenly aware of the natural world, I have deeper emotional connections to it. These translate into paintings with much more meaning.


To me, this is why it is so important to me to be in nature as often as possible. That is where my ideas are born. It is where I feel connected. In the landscape is where I am uplifted and inspired. This is simply who I am. It is in my DNA.


This is why I paint the landscape.


Two months after this afternoon in the mountains, I completed the studio painting entitled "North St. Vrain Creek". I used the field study for color and value notes. I used memory and experience to give feeling to the painting. Employing my skills developed over the years, I manipulated the composition and applied the paint with expressive calligraphy. I think I might have looked at a photo once or twice, but I had little need for it. This painting was completed in the same way most of my studio pieces are done. In this way I paint an impression of the place. I paint a statement of what the place meant to me. I hope it means something to you as well.





12 Responses to The Field Study

Mary Aslin
via web
Love both your paintings and your writing, Keith. Keep up the excellent work.

Kim Wild
via web
Your paintings and words show the blessing of a passionate Artist, I enjoyed your Web site.
Kim Wild
Napa CA

Carol Nelson
via web
Your descriptions are so vivid. The reader can really get a sense of your painting experiences. It makes viewing the painting even more meaningful. Many artists are not as articulate as yourself. Of course, since I also live in Colorado, I too have experienced first hand the beauty of the high country.

Tommy Thompson
via web
Keith, Besides being a gifted painter, you are an excellent writer as well. We look forward to reading your blog on FASO and appreciate your sound advice. Your painting is incredible and the writing makes it even more valuable and interesting.

Ramona Dooley
via web
Hi Keith,
Read your blog today on the daily newsletter. I had a similar experience yesterday - but I did what I should. I had plans to paint my pansies in the pot that are located in my front yard in the late afternoon. However, I went out to the deck to do some watering and saw my clematis in the rock garden and the lighting was so perfect and it looked so beautiful. did'nt plan to paint at that moment but told myself get out there and do it - and I did and I'm really happy the way it turned out. This blog has some great advice. I am now going into your website to see all your paintings!!

Ruth Housley
via web
Hi Keith,
I like your field study that you did. I have been to the Grand Canyon a couple of times and started to paint it one time but never did finish it.
I love your newsletter as well as your writings on Clint's newsletter.

Judy Payne-Korge
via web
Thanks for the seemed as if I came along. I'm also a lover of the grand outdoors.

I never painted from a field sketch although I have plenty in the studio, any recommendations on getting started?

dee shanny
Hi Keith,
Love your plein air paintings.Your writings really sum up the whole experience of the great out-doors.
Thanks for postings.

Much of the time, the serenity and ability to see the true beauty can only come after the struggle and pain.

We need to feel the emotion of every color of the rainbow in order to express those feelings in our art.

Feeling the painful feelings is never fun but, oh so rewarding!

Howard Brown
Hi Keith,

Great work. I hope we have a chance to meet sometime. I really appreciate your work because my approach is similar. Good painting and best wishes.


Dorothy Banker
What a wonderful idea to actually engage the brain in this emotional connection. I always have this emotional connection with nature but never thought to acknowledge it this way. I read your blog and intend to try your technique. Because I love to paint and have limited ability to do plein air, I use photos a lot but not unless I have an emtional reaction to the photo.

Hi Keith:

Your writing on how to transfer your emotions unto your art is really inspirational.


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