Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Tropics

Where else can you paint while besieged by mosquitoes, sand flies, and fiery ants? You become aware of the sweat running down your back while sitting in the shade. The smell of rotting matter ambushes you next to breathtaking vistas. Skyscapes change within minutes, and huge raindrops pelt whatever cover you've taken, along with your watercolor paper. You feel sorry you wore shorts. All of this and more awaits the brave tropical plein air painter!

I decided to paint ten days after I had arrived to Puerto Rico. I was too busy before, and Ike was passing through the northern coast. It wasn't until we got to Vieques, a little island off the eastern coast, that I was able to pull out my watercolors. Medialuna, a gorgeous beach facing the Caribbean sea, had been occupied by the US Marines until four years ago but now was deserted. Viequenses do not see September as part of the beach season, and there were no tourists but us. We had been careful to get there before 8:00 AM, because later on the combination of high heat and humidity (both over 90) would prove too much even for a tropical girl like me.

If you are a careful observer of color, you cannot help but feel overwhelmed the first few days of your visit, as you quickly realize that your temperate climate/polluted air color scheme will no longer do. In the tropics, frequent rain washes the air, and colors are more brilliant. Folliage near the equator irradiates and reflects light with such enthusiasm, you will reach for your shades. One strategy is to allow your brain (not really your eyes) to adjust over a few days of just observing. Your eyes may be busy registering the new environment, but it is your brain who decides the changes you'll make in your approach.

After a few days, you discover shadows are dramatic in tropical sunny weather, sunrise through sundown. Contrast is so high, those very dark shadows seem to swallow reflected light. They are also quite mobile because the sun seems to move much faster through the sky near the equator. Sunset starts at around 4:00 and by 6:00 you can no longer paint because it is too dark out there. I paint them like I would paint a solid object, but this means marking their position early on and not being shy with values.

If the weather suddenly changes, that is, if clouds obscure the sunlight, or if sunlight makes a brief appearance in an otherwise overcast day, I wait, sometimes until the next day. I've found it pays to start several paintings almost simultaneously in different areas, that way if one location does not work out you always have another. Because of the sun's speedy trayectory, watercolors involving architectural elements typically take me at least two days. If I draw and lay the first layers on the first day, I can focus on those fugitive shadows on the second day. I find that I can better convey volume with this method, instead of trying to "cram" everything in a two hour session. Just because it is a watercolor does not mean it has to be painted in a flash.

Area there any advantages to tropical plein air? Well, the high humidity level means a low evaporation rate. You can take your time with washes and other aqueous effects. You can actually think more about your wet-on-wet interventions. Your paint stays wet on the palette, facilitating color mixes and saving you paint. You don't have to worry about cold weather or temperature changes ending your session. And you can paint in your suimsuit if you'd like!

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