Tips for Sneaking an “Art Retreat” into a Family Road Trip
Ok, the last 18 months have been crazy, with upended routines, social and economic upheaval and uncertainty, worries about health and what’s coming next. By the summer, the vaccine for COVID 19 was widely available, and hope was in the air.
My family and I were ready to see walls other than our own. Heck, I was even ready to get away from my studio, which is typically a place of refuge. These past months were definitely a juggle fest as a parent, artist, small business owner, and home fixer upper. It was a quiet year in terms of limited time with extended family and indoor socializing, too quiet. Many of us are feeling a toll on our creative spirit, on our energy and ability to focus. Wow, it’d be a great time for a long art retreat, right? But our family plan was to visit family in Arizona we hadn’t seen in two years, while also avoiding airports with our under-12. Thus the plan for our 30-day Seattle, Washington to Phoenix, Arizona road trip was launched, despite distance, the heat of August travel in the Southwest United States, and western wildfire concerns. I knew however that I didn't want to skip out on creating for a whole month, and thus the need to find a way to sneak an art retreat into a family road trip, for restoration of both my personal and creative selves, which are very much linked for me.
So, whether you’re hitting the road with 3 people and their gear stuffed into a small car (Prius), or using trains, planes, or boats, how can you sneak some art retreat into your family travels?
Get Set for Your "Mini Art Retreat":
1. Assemble Your Travel Art Kit
I really, really wanted to take my pochade box and oils, but I soon realized that traveling with wet paintings in a packed Prius was not going to work out on this trip. Plus, I wanted a getaway from my studio and my regular process, so I opted for pencils, pens, and watercolors with the goal of creating rough and loose sketches and studies that dry quickly. I also wanted some flexibility to draw or paint, with a couple different sizes, and small enough to draw on the go in the car, in my lap, poolside, or at the dining table at the grandparents' house.
My travel art kit:
· Mesh pouch
· Travel water color kit
· Pencil bag with pencils, black markers, pencil sharpener, eraser
· Small moleskin paper sketchbook
· Postcard sized watercolor pad
· Composition finder
· Sketching app for phone or tablet, such Drawing Desk for iPhone
Based on lessons from the road, I’d add a couple more items:
· A couple of paper clips for holding sketchbook paper in place when it’s windy
· Small metal nail file for cutting the glue between the sheets on the watercolor pad.
2. Leverage Small Blocks of Time
It had been a long time since I’d felt “I had the time to sketch”. Well, that’s not really true I discovered. I learned/re-learned that getting into the habit of sketching again is in recognizing those small blocks of time that often go unnoticed: The kids are playing in the sand after a long beach walk and you’re sitting on the beach blanket staring at the waves. You are on the dock waiting for the crabs to get in the crab basket. Grandpa is cooking dinner, and you are sipping a glass of wine at the dining table while everyone else is watching tv or taking a shower. Hmmm, these are all great times to sketch. Once you start looking for those little gems of time, you start noticing them more. That lull in between activities, that’s just enough time for a few lines of pencil or dabs of paint, where a little sketch can emerge.
3. Pause & Observe
I found the practice of just stopping and looking so restorative. From marveling at the mist shrouding the saguaro cactus filled Catalina foothills before the heat of the desert day to gazing at the crash of the incoming tide against the rocks on the Oregon coast, the simple act of pausing from activity and observing and enjoying what is unique and special about a location or moment in time can be profoundly relaxing. It also helps you identify interesting compositions, which then inspires you to reach for that sketchbook or canvas.
4. Keep it Loose
Whether it was a 5, 10 or 20 minute sketch or painting, my goal was to capture the feeling of a place, unique colors and forms, the play of the light at that moment, something unusual about the landscape or architecture, and do so in the midst of blowing sand or fading light. A composition finder can be a help here, to cut the stimulus down to a focused area. Work light and loose, block in the major shapes, the darks and lights. Shorter is better, add only enough detail to convey the essence of the scene or mood and then move on.
5. Let Go of Expectations
This is perhaps the most important part, letting go! In the studio, it can be hard to escape the pressure to create finished artwork. Having art “play time” to explore new ideas is critical, and my goal for my “art retreat” moments was to have a vibe of creative exploration vs trying to create a polished work of art. I found it incredibly relaxing, and discovered some lovely new color combinations. I also enjoy looking back through my sketches and noticing the differences in landscape formations, colors, and lighting. My sketchbook is even better as a momento than my photos. For example, when I look at the little sketch from Simpson Beach in Oregon (above), I remember the sun on my face, the sand in the corner of my eyes, the sandpaper like wind, the smell of the salt, and the rushing sound of the crashing waves. A mental video replays in my head. This is a time to let go of expectations, don’t worry about the end result. Just go for it. See what happens. Do several short sketches instead of one longer one. There is magic in the serendipity, and restoration of our creative spirits can be found in creating without the pressure of “making art”. Some of my sketches will be shared, some won’t; that’s totally ok. You might wind up with finished pieces that you want to exhibit or sell, especially if you are a plein air artist, but let that not be your focus during your “undercover art retreat” time.
My family had a great summer trip, from Seattle to Phoenix and points in between. Yes, there was lots of driving! Yes, it was hot, dry, and smoky in places. And, yes, it was a wonderfully relaxing, fun family adventure at times too, filled with overdue socializing, swimming in the pool, summer reads, hikes, National Parks, and lots of sketching! I can’t wait to get into the studio, and utilize some of the creative energy I feel again. I'll be sharing some new oil paintings inspired by the trip at an upcoming event at Molly's Bottle Shop in Ballard.