“He who would travel happily must travel light.”
–Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Plein air painting vacations, or “paint-cations” as I hear them called, are a real thing; you can travel the world with like minded creatives to eat, drink, and make art. Sip Bordeaux and paint a chateau, or smoke Cubans and paint Havana—there are groups leaving every ten minutes. Want to experience the stress of painting outdoors, while camping, and being stalked by actual lions? I think they are calling that trip “September on the Serengeti” and its filling up fast. In a tent, on a boat, at the north pole or below the equator—if you can dream it, you can paint it.
I love to travel, and was born to paint, so I actually love the paint-cation trend—in theory at least. Turns out, the packing is an issue. I have a friend who I am certain could head out on a three week safari with nothing more than her Luis Vuitton cross body bag and a Pashmina. But I am not that woman. I travel like a refugee. Basically, with my whole world bungy-corded to multiple, bulging at the seams mismatched bags. Well, I used to travel that way; now older, and more banged up, I am reformed.
Back in the day, I cared little that “carry-on” typically means that you are able to CARRY the bag on to the plane, and not have to drag it like a dead body. As I prepared for my recent painting excursion to Mexico, I reconsidered. I would pack neat and light, taking not one tic-tac more than I needed. Along with clothes and travel sized toiletries, I figured I needed my plein air setup, a limited palette of paint, (extra white) a few brushes, surfaces to paint on, a hat, and bug spray—lots of bug spray. I got a decent bag to carry it all, a Kelty Redwing 44 backpack, which I highly recommend. I looked like a straight up geek with the hip and chest straps fastened, but it honest-to-goodness distributes the weight and saves your back and shoulders. With my backpack, a modest roll on to check, and the sickening conviction that I would dearly miss the many supplies I left behind, I set out.
I chose this particular trip mainly because of Jim McVicker, the *real deal* in plein air painting, and our instructor for the week. However, I was also charmed by the online images of the rustic fishing village setting where he would teach. I glossed over the fine print which urged being fit enough to manage steep and rocky terrain. I was likewise unconcerned that access to our Casa required wading across a river or traversing a foot bridge that appeared to have been assembled with used wood crates and ordinary kitchen twine.
That said, I am not a camper, nor a hiker. I can manage a ball cap or a straw hat, but I don’t have the right kind of hair to wear a helmet, so I am not inclined to pedal or row or rappel my way to a painting location, no matter how magical it is. I applaud the “extreme” plein air painters out there (you know who you are) but nature is dirty, and there are ticks, so I compromised. The venue, Casa de Los Artistas, offered comfortable enough accommodations, lovely al fresco meals, and an awesome open air art studio. It was nice but not fancy, a good fit for the week I envisioned.
Our first afternoon out on location at Boca de Tomatlan proved a good measure of my packing. My extra lean kit met the test, and surprising even myself, all I really lacked were a few pesos for beer. Luckily, my fellow artists chipped in, and we quenched our thirst with ice cold cerveza, delivered to our easels on the beach. It was heaven. With each excursion through the week, I challenged myself to take even less in my kit; by day 7 my spirit and my pack were noticeably lighter, and I the better for it.
Packing light is like just about every other sensible thing in life. Simple, but not easy. A lifetime ago, I was an actual camping-and-cookie-selling Girl Scout. In the subsequent years, I have packed for every scenario in my travels. Wiser now, being “prepared” pretty much means bringing a good flashlight and more cash, not more stuff. So, with one international travel workshop under my flipbelt, I will advertise myself as an expert. My packing advice is to be ruthless. Leave behind the gun and the canolli. If you are not a Godfather fan, nevermind. A paint-cation is not the time to take all the tubes of paint with names you can’t pronounce and have never used—that manganese blue will just weigh you down. In traveling generally, you need less of everything than you think. Accept that you may leave some “nice to haves” at home, but embrace the concept of plein air painting without lower back pain. It is a fair trade off..
Whether plein air painting, or otherwise enjoying nature, getting out, and sometimes away, is good for the soul. Along with just the few true necessities, set out with an open mind and you will surely return with an improved outlook. Travel light, and bring back your memories, and paintings perhaps, as souvenirs, having looked and actually seen. I will leave you for now with a few resources I found helpful, and good counsel from Thoreau:
Our life is frittered away by detail...simplify, simplify.
Till next time,