I surveyed the hills and valleys in front of me. The land was covered in organized rows of 100 year old grape vines and olive trees, interrupted only by winding dirt roads connecting farms to the outside world. Terra Cotta-roofed houses speckled the landscape, and in the distance the hills transformed into mountains. The sun felt warm on my skin and the smell of fresh soil filled the air. As I looked up from my paint palette and over my canvas, I wondered at how this place must have looked when Leonardo was born. I had come here to Vinci, Italy to paint and to remember the importance of being an artist.
Art has always been a thread woven into the fabric of Peg and Awl, but on a personal level through the past ten years it had become a thing that Margaux and I would fit into the cracks of responsibility. Then in 2016 Margaux attended an illustration workshop in Spain and she was awakened. Art transformed into a necessity, and every day she devoted several hours to drawing, painting and writing. As I watched it feed her soul, I began to feel the pull myself. I decided to apply for a juried workshop taught by Jeremy Mann and Nadezda, and hosted by Art Escape Italy. I applied and waited, doubting I would be one of the 17 chosen. When I got the acceptance email I was ecstatic and nervous, with a underlying feeling of “what did I get my self into?” After months of struggling through the required homework of copying every page of Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing From Life (which I did not complete before the trip), I hopped on a plane with my paints, brushes and canvases and headed to Tuscany, Italy.
Along with 16 other aspiring artists, I stayed at a secluded retreat situated atop a hill surrounded by vineyards and orchards. For 6 days we were immersed in instruction, reading, discussion and painting with Jeremy and Nadezda as they shared their passion for what it means to be an artist. One night we all set up along the edge of the hill and painted the landscape before us. I had never plein air painted before and had no idea what a plein air kit was. But as I taped a gessoed and toned canvas to my palette, threw a few paints and brushes in my pockets and sat down in the grass, I was enthralled.
The way that Jeremy explained the process was delightful. He had built a small plein air set up out of an old cigar box. His canvases were 4″ × 5″, and the box was small enough to fit in his hand while he painted. Inside was everything he needed: a glass palette, reused film canisters for liquin and turpentine, small whittled-down brushes and miniature paint tubes. This portable pochade box was so manageable that he always had it with him, and the scenes that he painted were amazing color studies and sketches that captured the aura of the moment. That night I decided to design a box that I could take on my own adventures.
On the flight home, I sketched out a rough plan and within a few days of my return I had made the first prototype. Made of walnut with a vegetable tanned leather cover and shoulder strap, it housed all my painting supplies and four canvases that could be stored safely when wet. I took it with me everywhere and stopped to paint whenever I saw a moment that I wanted to capture. For the next 8 months I made modifications, perfecting the design and usability of the box in preparation to finally share it with the world.
I look back to one year ago when I was preparing to leave for Italy and I see how I have grown as an artist. Plein air painting has changed my life. The excitement of slinging my pochade box over my shoulder and setting out on a painting adventure is intoxicating. Being able to set up anywhere within a few minutes has encouraged me to paint often, to more closely observe the things around me, to hone my memory as I strive to capture a fleeting moment, and to constantly learn how to mix colors. It has taught me the importance of being in the moment, and of considering the physical world around me and my relationship with it. Plein air painting has helped me to live more like an artist.