At the Arboretum

I did it! I went plein air painting — not on a solitary hike at our nearby nature trails, but as part of a small group of artists who went to the beautiful Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. While I have “tagged along” on a couple of plein air outings, and while I’ve done a bit of plein air painting alone, this was my first time actually pulling out paints and participating in a group event.

I can’t say that I have much to show for my time in the gardens, but I did complete two very simple gansai paintings, neither of which is truly recognizable for what it is, but that’s totally irrelevant for me at the moment. For me, the important thing was simply getting out there, taking part in the activity, and sharing the experience with other artists.

So, do you want to see what I painted? Or should I first tell you more about how I approached this momentous occasion? Well, let’s start with one of my two paintings.

No, of course you can’t tell what it is, but that’s all right. I painted this as a study in colors. It’s a waterfall, and here’s the photo I took:

My gansai painting bears little resemblance to this beautiful scene, but I was inspired to create this in my own way — meaning lots of strokes of colors laid down in a vague, impressionistic style. Translation: There was no way I could ever paint something like this, so I just did what I could, tried to capture some of the basic shapes, and pretended to know what I was doing.

Let me explain, too, that I wasn’t working on high-quality watercolor paper. I wasn’t working on watercolor paper at all. Nope. This was done on office grade “copy paper” — the cheap kind you buy at Walmart. That’s the paper I used for my nature journal. It’s definitely not suited for watercolor, but that’s the beauty of this to me. It’s a bit like the Smashbook philosophy. Start with a mess, and nothing I do can ruin it.

Now, let me explain how I approached this bold, daring expedition. Yes, for me, that’s exactly what it was. It was me stepping forward and saying, “Yes, I really am an artist, and yes, I can go plein air painting with other artists. Yes, I can be part of a group, and yes, I can be accepted and recognized as an artist.”

I didn’t attempt taking oils and an easel, brushes and canvases. I packed my simple little “gansai go-bag”, once again drawing comfort and encouragement from my all-but-used-up little set of gansai. Since I’ve been working a lot with symbolism lately, let me explain that this messy set of gansai watercolor symbolizes — for me — what being an artist truly means. I look at the well-used set, and I feel a marvelous sense of satisfaction. I have used these colors. I have painted. I have mixed colors. I have made brushstrokes. I have done all those things that artists do with a set of paint.

So my supplies for the day included my little gansai set, two waterbrushes, an HB pencil, my nature journal, and my smashbook. I wanted to be comfortable, to be prepared with just enough and not too much, and I wanted the convenience of having little to carry with me.

Another very important element was that I chose to travel with two of my dearest friends from the art clubs, Carolyn and Donna.

Carolyn is a delightful octogenarian who is still very active. Even though she doesn’t have a formal art school education, she is a gifted natural artist who taught art in local schools for over fifty years before retiring. She still does art demonstrations. Galleries have hired her to sit in the window and paint. Curious passers-by love watching her at work.

Donna is another artist in the area. What I love most about Donna is her supportive nature. Even when I don’t believe in myself, she does. She encourages me, reminds me that I am a real artist, and she sees art as a way of expressing ourselves. She places little, if any, importance on results. For Donna, it’s the process itself that matters. She draws and paints for herself, not to show off her skills or win awards, but because she loves creating art.

Being with these two encouraging women was enough to bolster my confidence. I didn’t have to create a masterpiece. I didn’t even have to come away with a work of art. The purpose of the field trip was to visit a beautiful botanical garden, to see the sights, to be inspired, and to express myself through visual art.

In all, there were six of us from the regional area club who made the trip.

This photo shows three of us gathered around Carolyn as she sketched in the garden. You can see me holding my smashbook. Next to me is Sandy, the club president, and on the other side of Carolyn is our club treasurer, Sharon. Donna took the photo, so she’s not present here.

Another artist, Tammy, was set up oil painting away from us, so she’s not included here either.

It was a very hot day — mid 90’s Fahrenheit — but it was comfortable in the shade.

Carolyn did a bit of sketching. So did Donna. Sandy and Sharon each completed a few direct watercolors, and Tammy finished two floral oil paintings.

Not that there’s any need for comparison, but I felt I had successfully “kept up” with the pace, that I had indeed been an active participant in this plein air painting event. I was surrounded by friends who went out of their way to ensure I had a successful outing.

We talked about how we became involved in art. We chatted about how being an artist affects our way of seeing the world. We spoke about experiences we’ve had in creating and sharing art. These conversations are very valuable for me. I love being included. Art has brought so many beautiful things into my life, including rewarding friendships.

And my second painting? It was done in my smashbook — which is slightly larger. This smashbook has ruled pages that have been glued together, wrinkled, crinkled, and gessoed. This smashbook is not intended for fine art. It’s intended for personal, expressive art. And that’s exactly what this is:

Near the waterfall was a huge tree with limbs growing up and spreading out. I loved it. So, I painted it, again in my own childish style.

It is, at least, recognizable as a tree. I played a little with lights and shadows, and I tried to add some suggestion of bark. Not great, but it was the best I could do for the time and the place. It was all I wanted to do. I went in to the event with low expectations for myself. I just wanted to be there, to put a bit of gansai on my paper, to create something that expressed my thoughts and feelings.

Those of you who are seasoned plein air veterans might think I’m being a bit silly in my approach here. You might shake your head and mutter, “Just do it, for heaven’s sake!” Be patient with me, please. At least I did step up, go along, and got my brushes wet. It was a start.

Overall, I enjoyed the day, and that’s what truly matters here. I gathered my art supplies and my courage, as well, and I had a memorable day. I look forward now to returning to the Arboretum, and I will look forward to doing more plein air painting.





  1. Yes! Wonderful adventure, with excellent results! I’ve never painted outside. NO WAY would I do that, given the bugs and the heat! Aaack! Well, maybe in winter, but that would bring its own challenges. 🙃 Your waterfall immediately suggested water – it’s lovely. And the tree looks warm, full of life. 👏👏👏👏👏

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It was a good experience for me. It worked because I set such low expectations. All I wanted to do was go along, put a little paint on paper, and feel accepted as an artist. That last part is the key, and having Carolyn and Donna there to encourage me meant a lot. It was almost as though they were re-living their first plein air experience through me. And our conversations were open and honest. I came away feeling that I was part of this group of artists, that I’m “good enough” to be part of the club.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been told many times that if we really want to improve as artists, plein air painting is the best way. But it’s so challenging! I’d tried it a couple times before, just on my own, but it is a hassle. I do enjoy taking a sketchbook and pencil outside, so that’s an easy way to start. I’m now getting used to taking my little gansai watercolor set along. It’s helped me a lot to think of it is as time to enjoy outside, and not think so much about trying to “make art”. I really enjoyed the trip with the club, so having good friends along for encouragement can make a big difference.

      Liked by 1 person

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