Sometimes, you just have to get outside. Your body needs it, your psyche wants it, and it’s healing on so many levels. But you still need a push … you can’t just simply go outside. You think you need some purpose, some sort of goal. As we see online, there are all kinds of amazing feats to accomplish out there … scaling a towering sheer cliff, skiing 50 miles through sub-arctic tundra, or sailing around the world! But what if you don’t happen to be a world-class athlete and can’t climb the tallest mountains or swim the deepest seas? Luckily, it turns out that the outside, the beauty of nature, belongs to us all, and you don’t need to be an extraordinary person to take part in it. Still though, it might be nice to have something particular in mind, some smaller goal to draw you outside.
Plein air painting is an answer for many people, and it’s not just for accomplished artists. Literally, anyone can do this because it’s a very forgiving medium. Plein air is the act of painting out in the elements. You head out, find a nice spot, pull out some paper and brushes, and simply record what you see. It’s a very fast style of painting, so the results are usually nice and loose. They are imbibed with a natural freedom of expression because you need to work quickly while that moment lasts. But there is no pressure – a secret of painters is that they can always work on it a bit more once they are at home if they feel like it. While it’s always best to finish the artwork on-site and in the moment, if something in the scene really bothers you, it’s always an option to work on it later.
In the Roam Original Series presented by GORV! short film, Boundless: Episode 3 with Latasha Dunston, we see it all live from the steep forested hills of Colorado. Latasha describes herself as an illustrator, muralist, and designer, but she always takes pains to make it clear that literally anyone can enjoy doing plein air out in the wilderness. It’s not an art contest. It’s about finding something that helps you settle even more into the moment.
She’s based in Denver and loves the fact that she and her partner can easily hop into their RV and be totally off the grid in 90 minutes. The video reveals them doing just that. They have a relatively short drive and then set up camp out in the uniquely beautiful Colorado wilds, with their trusty double-pronged marshmallow forks hovering over a welcoming campfire.
The first night is spent getting settled in and enjoying the freedom of having left civilization, with no texts, no emails, and no distractions whatsoever. And they chose quite a spot, Wellington Lake, less than two hours west of Denver. Roam Media obliges us with beautiful footage of the small, isolated lake, with the mountains rising all around and the endless forest never showing the smallest break in its thick canopy.
By the next morning, she’s ready to explore … and to do her art. As she explains, “Plein air painting is one of the most accessible outdoor sports you’re ever going to partake in.” Accessibility is a continuous theme of hers when she talks about the outdoors. She obviously feels that getting out is so very important that people must realize there’s nothing to stop them – everybody can find enjoyment out in the natural world. For painting, all you need is a paintbrush, some paint, and a sheet of paper. And you don’t need training or a professional background! You can teach yourself as you experiment and find your personal style.
Latasha is full of good humor – she’s funny and laughs a lot as she makes faces for the camera. Alone outdoors, she is obviously very much in her element commenting, “Complete solitude in nature is very beneficial to my mental health.” Then she laughs again. The video follows her setting up a simple easel, using her two hands to frame up the image she’s after, before going down to the lake for water. She’s doing watercolor this weekend, and it’s so fitting that it’s actual water from Wellington Lake that will be the active medium in her art.
She paints broad landscapes, but also small ones – whatever catches her eye gets a chance to become a painting. And that’s one of the attractions of plein air. You do it quickly, mistakes and all, so that you are not stuck in one spot for too long. You can roam around and discover new perspectives, new dimensions. On the other hand, you are still free to take as much time as you like in a single spot because there are no rules.
Latasha’s love of the natural world goes deep down, and she uses the process of plein air painting as an amplifier for this. “It’s a way to capture a moment, capture a feeling in nature.” It is so very different from painting from a photograph or from memory. With plein air, you have to focus on exactly what you are experiencing, even as the clouds are shifting and the sun is moving. You try to appreciate every small detail of the light, the breeze, how it felt to be there at that time, in that moment.
She is very clear about her enjoyment of nature, “It needs to be normalized that everybody goes outside, and plein air painting is approachable and accessible for people who have not gone out before.” She feels it’s important to set an example herself by looking happy and comfortable in the outdoors, to give others the idea they could have fun trying this out as well.
“Who is outside? Who can go outside? Basically everyone!” Not everything “outside” has to do with extreme sports, despite what we sometimes see in videos. And anyway, those aren’t necessarily accessible to the average person. They are fun to see and imagine doing them, but they’re not the most relatable activities for most people.
On the other hand, nearly anyone can try plein air watercolor. Latasha finds it to be “a calming meditative practice, a way to slow down in nature.” As an activity, painting helps her slow herself down, to be able to sink into the moment even more. Her point, of course, is that this experience of being enveloped by the wilderness, by nature, is part of everyone’s heritage. “It would be a shame to only focus on the people doing the extremely dangerous things” and think no one else can go outside.