Capturing eternity in an hour: painting in the great outdoors

I feel pretty good about this one for a few hours' efforts!
I feel pretty good about this one for a few hours’ efforts!


“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

Like so many people, I have always loved that quote from Blake. And now I feel like I have an even better idea of that kind of experience as an artist.

Yesterday I spent an inspiring afternoon plein-aire painting with some fellow students on Lake George, our beautiful lake here in the Adirondack Mountains. My painting teacher, Joan, and her family have a camp there, and have spent summers on the lake for over 60 years. She shared some wonderful stories about the place, as well as some sad ones, and I think both influenced the feeling in my painting. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course; but now, looking at it, I can see in the colors the mood of the day and the mix of my responses to the stories she related.

Joan’s family had once owned an entire island on Lake George. Her description of the island and the camp was mesmerizing, including the tale of an old ice house built over huge rocks that stayed so cold it served ice all year round to the mainland and to other islands. They had later turned it into an outdoor kitchen, and she said when you sat out there to eat, you felt like you were sitting right on top of the lake, with no boundaries between you and the water. I wished I could have seen it. I felt her sadness and awe, as Joan described it, that the place no longer existed for her and her family, and sympathized. Someone else was enjoying it now, sitting over the lake in the old ice house, marveling at the view. At least I hope they are appreciating it.

Joan’s father was a doctor, and her mother was (and still is) quite a famous painter in the area. Gradually as the years passed and their health deteriorated, her parents sold their island home and bought a few smaller camps on the lake’s Eastern shore. Those were later down-sized again, and the camp they now have built up high on hill overlooking the lake and the former camps below. Still, they were surrounded by their former homes. It seemed to me that it would, at times, be a mixed bag of emotions to visit and though I did not ask Joan about it, if I did I think she would, quite candidly, agree.

Nancy in the garden
Nancy in the garden

Walking the grounds, I discovered a lovely statue I later learned was named “Nancy” (I loved that she had a name). I found her hiding under the trees in the back yard, mysterious and a bit out of place. My mother’s name had been Nancy, so I of course felt an even greater connection to the statue upon learning that fact.

Joan shared that Nancy had been on the island when her parents bought it ages ago, and no one knew where she came from or how she got there. Her parents had loved the statue and named her for their friend. They brought her along to the new camp, unwilling to give her up to someone else. She was much more portable than an island. But more than that she was a constant, a friend and a memory of other times, other places, who had seen and been through many things with their family, and who probably had quite a past of her own. A silent guardian of time, she appeared quite content with it all.  I felt so drawn to her and took lots of pictures, trying to capture her in different ways and unravel some of her secrets. I find myself wondering more and more about her even now.

After my meeting with Nancy, I made my way up to the house and ate lunch on the back deck looking out over the lake. The sun had finally come out and so had all the people. Boats cruised by, towing their jet skiers and tubers; kayakers paddled serenely along, close to the shore and safely out of harm’s way; and the kids next door jumped and swam off their dock, hooting and hollering the whole time. It became a typical summer vista for Lake George.

The rest of the afternoon I spent painting, looking out on the ever-changing landscape that is water and sky. I had never painted in the great outdoors before, and it had it’s fair share of challenges: Like, how do I keep up with the colors when the light changes all the time? But I finished my little painting in just a few hours, record time for me. Big brush, small canvas was my motto!

Fellow artists at work
Fellow artists at work

And at the end of day we all put our paintings up together. The images painted were all pretty much the same: land, trees, water, sky. But they way they were painted, so different from one to the next. Whether it was color choices, media used, brushwork, or the intangible thing we know of as style, each painting radiated it’s own feeling. It was awesome, and fun. And I think everyone came away with a better understanding of the experience and challenges unique to creating art outside, I think it gave all of us a special appreciation for the work we did that day.

I love my painting, it may even be my favorite now. I don’t think it’s the most technically skilled I’ve ever done, or that’s it’s even that “good” (whatever that means). But I love it. I love how I created it, the circumstances under which it arose. The breeze, the sun, the water, even the occasional and oddly pleasurable frustration of wanting to capture it all and not being able to – I know now why so many artists claim that plein-aire is the best way to paint.

But mostly I love the stories behind my painting: of Joan’s family camp and Nancy’s mysterious presence; of eating lunch in the sun watching the summer crowd; of sharing an afternoon with my fellow artists, each of us creating and capturing our own unique version of the lake and the world it inhabits, telling our own stories of how we each felt that day about it all. That’s the best. And now I have those memories with me forever in my little painting, that brief slice of eternity captured in one afternoon, to revisit whenever I decide to simply take a look.