Plein Air Learning

Plein air painting at Chimney Rock nearing completion.

I love both painting and being outside, so painting en plein air should be right up my alley, right? It’s actually a bit of a stretch. I tend to do an enormous amount of planning before beginning a watercolor. The spontaneity of plein air with oil paint is a refreshing change of pace.

Another liberating factor to this adventure is that I’ve decided results don’t matter. (Much like nature journaling: the process is more important than the final result.) My goal is to become reacquainted with oil painting and if a few successful paintings happen by accident, that’s okay, too. (I ended up being pretty happy with most!)

Today, I found myself with unscheduled hours to myself after dropping my daughter off in a beautiful mountainous area near the Virginia/West Virginia border. I had many astounding mountain views to choose from on the drive back, but this one won out due to the subject matter, a great parking spot and a safe location to put up my easel off of the road. Chimney Rock is a striking geological formation and was well lit in the autumn sun. (A man that stopped by to chat informed me that it is the most photographed location in Rockingham County.)

The two photos above show the beginning of the painting session and the end (about two hours later). Shifting values and shadows are part of the plein air challenge. I included just a portion of the VFW building to the right because it helps to show scale and locals know the VFW is there! It seemed a lie to leave it out, although I did omit several structures.

Chimney Rock
Oil, 11 x 14

My plein air education so far has included workshops with Stephen Dougherty at Rockfish Gap Community Center and Kevin Adams at Shenandoah National Park. Here are a few other attempts:

Big Meadows_1

Big thanks to my mom! She loaned to me the red easel that appears in all of these photos. She also gave me cartons of canvases, countless tubes of paint, brushes and mediums. And encouragement. Thanks, Mom!

October at Big Meadows II by Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved. 11" x 14" oil. Available.
October at Big Meadows II
11″ x 14″ oil.

Magnolia in Watercolor

My husband planted a Southern Magnolia in our yard several years ago. This summer, it became mature enough to give us dozens of blooms though it is only about eight feet tall. The flowers take turns in the spotlight and have kept the show going for months, rather than all bursting into flower at once. This seems like a rather southern trait to me: graciously taking their time as if speaking with a slow, southern draw.

Southern Magnolias: Queen and Debutante, watercolor by Kelli Hertzler, all rights reserved.
Southern Magnolias: Queen and Debutante
16″ x 20″ matted watercolor.
(mat opening is 11″ x 14″)

The petals begged to be painted in glowing watercolor, although I did use a lesson learned from my oil painting here.  I have been toning my oil canvases with yellow ocher and burnt sienna before starting a new composition. For this watercolor, I toned the entire sheet – the white areas of the two blooms excepted – with the several of the pigments I would use on the foreground. It immediately created a warm, comfortable atmosphere and subdued the background to allow the whites to sing the high notes.

<u>Southern Magnolia: Queen and Debutante</u> detail. <br> By Kelli Hertzler.
Southern Magnolia: Queen and Debutante detail.
By Kelli Hertzler.

The limited palette included: Scarlet Red, Cadmium Orange,Winsor Yellow Deep, Pthalo Blue, Winsor Blue (green shade) and Burnt Sienna. The substrate is Arches 140 lb. hot press paper. The mat opening is 11″ x 14″ and it will frame to 16″ x 20″.

Juried In

My art can seen in two art shows right now. I’ll give you a preview of my own pieces, but the works hanging beside mine are top notch – I recommend you visit in person to see them all.

I have four pieces in the Shenandoah Valley Watercolor Society’s Juried Art Show.  This is a large exhibit with nearly ninety pieces made primarily by members of the SVWS – and they brought their A-game! All the work be described as “watermedia” but some stretch what you might think belongs in that category. Acrylic is considered watermedia. One artist paints tissue paper and uses it for collage.  I was honored to receive a second place award yesterday for Mossy Forest III from juror Ashley Sauder Miller. Visit this show at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Center’s Park Gables Gallery until November 2, 2018.

Mossy Forest III by Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved. 12
Mossy Forest III won second place at the SVWS Juried Art Show.

My other pieces hanging at VMRC are:

Bluet’s Corner
20″ x 28″ framed watercolor.
October at Big Meadows by Kelli Hertzler. All rights reserved. 11
October at Big Meadows
11″ x 14″ framed watercolor.
After the Storm
16″ x 20″ framed watercolor.

The Central Virginia Watercolor Guild currently has a juried show with one of my pieces included. This exhibit is at the McGuffey Art Center in Charlottesville through September 30, 2018.

Shenandoah in Gold-web
Shenandoah Gold
20″ x 28″ framed watercolor.


Pond Journal: Frogs and More

Our pond has quickly become my “happy place.” I steal away several times a day, when possible, to see what is happening above and beneath the surface of the water. It’s rare that I don’t observe something new or changing. My daughter claims the pond is my favorite child. Maybe just some days…

The lay of the land. And water.

This spring, I decided to start a journal dedicated to observations at this one spot in the world that facinates me so. I choose a large journal (8.5″ x 11″) that was a gift from a friend. I would not hike or travel with something so big and it sat empty for more than a year until I found this perfect use for it. I have a case of pencils and pens with it (a freebie from the Shenandoah Natural Journaling Club’s Christmas supply swap) and keep those handy for quick trips out to the pondside table. I can carry art supplies in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Bliss.

My wonderful husband spent a day and a half digging our pond. It’s 10 by 15 feet and averages 2 feet deep. And the pond wasn’t his idea. This is what love looks like!

My husband and I started digging the pond Memorial Day weekend 2016. (He did 90% of the digging. Love you, Tim!) The night he finished, it rained buckets. Next morning, a frog was in the puddle at the bottom of the pond. Who told the frog? We soon had several frogs move in, then frog eggs and very shortly after, tiny tadpoles. Spring 2018, we had  enormous tadpoles (I counted 47 all visible at one time. Biblical plague coming soon?). Each tadpole is about four inches long. I learned that some species can remain tadpoles for two years. (My best guess is that these are Green Frogs.) In the last few weeks, they have been putting on legs and climbing out of the water. What a miracle to watch!

I was curious about those leaf packages floating the pond and investigated! This deserves a post by itself. Fascinating stuff!
Pickerel Rush, damselfly and multiple dragonflies, and of course the tadpoles.
The developing tadpoles are getting a lot of my attention. But this iris in the bog could not be ignored!
A very wordy post describing an encounter with a Twelve-spotted Skimmer female. And frogs.
A grown-up frog (this one migrated, not a tadpole of ours.). Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure now that it is a green frog and not a pickerel, so the eraser must get to work. And our white lily is starting the show with a bang – three blooms at once.

Youth Nature Journaling Class

sketchbook turtle
A page from my sketchbook featuring turtles at JMU’s arboretum.

In June, I’ll be teaching a one-day nature journaling workshop for youth ages 12-18. And it’s at the perfect location for such a thing: the JMU Arboretum. The class is limited to just 12 students, but a parent (with sketchbook) can tag along for free.

Do you know someone who would enjoy this class? Please pass on the information!
Nature journaling is a great way to get closer to nature, bring together the disciplines of natural science, language arts, drawing and even a little math. Our focus will be on recording our observations – not necessarily making pretty pictures. Do not let a lack of confidence in your art skills keep you trying this amazing activity!
The class will start with practical helps and a few guided group observations, then we will head out to explore the amazing plants and animals of the arboretum and choose our own adventures.
Journal page of Deadnettle. All rights reserved.
Journal page of Deadnettle. I used a microscope for the tiny details.

The class is June 15 from 9-12. All necessary supplies will be provided. Cost is $25.

You can register online directly with the arboretum or see the Facebook event for more information.
A journaling page from my sketchbook featuring Lilacs. There is so much to learn when we look intentionally.


Nature Journaling: Birds

Bird Study results at the Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club, February 2018. Lesson led by Kelli Hertzler.
Two members of the Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club produced wonderful studies of the American Gold Finch. The color is a glorious representation of their winter plumage.

Last fall, I joined a relatively new art group, the Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club. The members come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are accomplished artists while others are just picking up the challenge to learn to draw.  All share a desire to learn more about the nature world. The people are encouraging, informing, welcoming and so friendly.  An active Facebook group keeps me engaged and sketching between monthly meetings.

The casual format means that members take turns presenting or planning a program. February was my turn and I led the group in a bird study. We began by looking at basic parts all birds share and discussed how variations/adaptations on those themes can inform about that animal’s behavior, diet and habitat.

Just the bones! An SNJC member making a beautiful skeletal study.
Just the bones! An SNJC member making a beautiful skeletal study.

Each person drew a gull as we learned exterior anatomy. Several bird skeletons were on hand (thanks to Kris from BRCC) to help visualize how the parts intersect beneath the feathers. “Quick draws” followed; participants sketched from photos within increasingly smaller time limits. This is good training for field studies of real birds who will not hold still while we make their likeness! Virginia Wildlife magazines provided reference material for longer, independent studies. Some really great bird studies were the result!

Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club drawing a bird study lesson. February 2018.
Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club during a bird study lesson. February 2018.
SNJC members examining a mallard drake up close.
SNJC members examining a mallard drake up close.

Interested in joining SNJC? Find the group on Facebook and request to join. Meeting information is posted there.

Scientists Can Draw, Too!

I’ve had a several wonderful opportunities to teach this winter. This post focuses on the one furthest from home.

In February, Virginia Working Landscapes at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal invited me to teach a Nature Journaling workshop for their volunteer Citizen Scientists. What a fantastic group of people! I thoroughly enjoyed the evening sharing journaling tips and techniques with people who already had a vast body of nature knowledge. Several people who said they could not draw made wonderful observational sketches – surprising themselves! One of the great things about studying nature is that we focus on observing and the drawing takes care of itself.

Kelli Hertzler teaching Nature Journaling.
Teaching Nature Journaling to Virginia Working Landscape’s volunteer Citizen Scientists at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Photo credit: Charlotte Lorick of Virginia Working Landscapes.

Nature study has always been part of my love of art. “Nature Journaling” is a term I first heard when homeschooling my children and it immediately resonated with me as a wonderful, immersive whole-brain learning activity. My Fine Art degree is coupled with a minor in Biology, so I feel that I am making a complete circle by teaching citizen scientists to sketch their observations.

This Smithsonian facility keeps a low profile. Its work focuses on research of endangered and threatened species around the globe. There are a number of exotic species on site, but the public is only allowed on the campus one weekend per year, in October, and none of the animals are on display. I took my children last fall and was amazed at the work that goes on there and also that we were talking with the actual researchers about the work they do. I whole-heartedly recommend this field trip for both adults and children. Best trivia learned for the day: animals in captivity have different colors of glitter added to their food so when the feces is analyzed, scientists can identify the individual  from whom it originated.

Featured Artist at the JMU Arboretum: Kelli Hertzler

I’m delighted to share that I’m the featured artist at Edith J. Carrier Arboretum in JMU’s Francis Plecker Education Center for the months of March and April 2018. This is a perfect place for eleven of my forest and wild flora paintings. Large windows face the pond and woodland, a multitude of potted plants soak up the sun inside as well. Nine watercolors and two colored pencil drawings are on display in the airy room.

This view from inside the Francis Plecker Education Center incorporates lush potted plants, a view of the pond and woodland and some of my smaller watercolors. Watercolor by Kelli Hertzler.
Can you sense your heart rate going down? This perspective from inside the Francis Plecker Education Center incorporates lush potted plants, a view of the pond and woodland, and some of my smaller watercolors.
KHertzler art on wall at JMU Arboretum.
The Center’s main room makes a cozy exhibit space.

The Center is open Monday through Friday 8-4. It is on the opposite side of the pond from the original entrance. A second entrance and parking lot serves the center, but be aware that to reach it you must either climb a full flight of stairs or ascend a rather long, three-tiered ramp. Not a problem for pushing a stroller or wheelchair but arduous if you have trouble walking. Public bathrooms are available.

There is no reception for this show. If you are able to visit, I would love to hear from you!

Watercolor is Like a Cat

With enough training, most art media will fall into line, obey and express the will of the artist much like you can expect a well-trained dog to respond to you in obedient, predictable ways. Watercolor is, well, not like that. And that is its attraction.

The watercolor artist soon learns that he or she must build a relationship with the water. The water has its own behaviors that in time we can generally but not precisely predict. Yet we can learn its tendencies and quirks. We can coax, stroke and guide while allowing the water the freedom to flow.

Disapproving cat.
Cat disapproves of my developing watercolor.

Cat “owners” may recognize this kind of relationship. We respect and appreciate the qualities of our feline friends. Each cat has a mind of its own, a unique personality and absolutely no instinct to obey a superior or assimilate into a pack. Those who love cats value their independence and the gift of affection freely given in the form of a headbutt to the ankle, loud purr or spontaneous lap sit. We do not like, but sort of understand, the cat’s need to push things off shelves at 3 am. We adore the opportunity to stroke the soft fur, waggle the red laser dot and lure the kitty into playtime. It’s an interaction that may include impossibly large pupils, spectacular jumps, lightning fast paw grabs and spring-loaded pounces. Or, honestly, a bored cat that won’t even LOOK at the feather wiggling on a string. You just don’t know until you try. But those failed attempts at connecting make the successes so much sweeter.

So let’s take those lessons taught by our cats and apply them watercolor painting.

Each combination of paint, paper and water will create something unique. The more the artist understands the properties of the materials chosen, the more he will able to guide the finished result, but it is unwise and undesirable to be in control of everything. Think cat on a leash. No one wants to see that.

Allow water to do its thing. Sometimes it will create a happy accident that you never would have planned. Follow its lead, be inspired and make the most of it. Sometimes, you will have a disaster you will not know how to remedy. Don’t get too invested. Remind yourself that your watercolor painting is just a piece of paper with some marks on it. Learn what you can from the experience and move on. Kinda like those parallel scratches on the back of your hand.

Enjoy the act of painting. It is just plain fun to charge wet paper with a pigment-laden brush and watch the magic happen. Let your brush jump, dart and pounce, or smooth in a graded wash. Give yourself permission to purr a little.

Do not push the hairs of your brush in the wrong direction.

Watercolor is a medium that you will not master. No one calls themselves a Watercolor Master – that is a label used by others and I suspect the artist called such will be laughing on the inside as much as a cat companion chuckles at the idea of owning a cat. It just doesn’t work that way. I’ve read many quotes of aged watercolorists who say the enduring attraction of watercolor is that that the learning never stops. Dogs have masters; cats have staff. Embrace your role.

Cat “helps” me with my drawing.

Now smooth your hair into place and keep painting. Right after you lift the cat off the piece of paper you need to use. (How do they know?)

Do you have a cat for a studio companion? Leave a comment about what you have learned about painting (or general life lessons) from your feline.

Plein Air at Big Meadows

A plein air sketch from Big Meadows at Shenandoah National Park shown small here because it’s a teaser. You’ll have to come to my show in December to see it well. This is a small piece – mat fits an 11 x 14 frame.

Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park is a big draw for area artists, appearing frequently in local exhibits. I’ve made several paintings there. Last month, I made another trek to see what I could see.


This October day is a spectacular color fest in the meadow. Blue skies with a drift of clouds, brilliant sunlight carves out the undulations in the landscape. Various species of grasses and low-growing plants wearing autumn are swiped across the expanse like a ready-made painting. The challenge is to capture those brilliant yellows and reds in a credible way. They look unnatural.

Parking in the lot at the edge of the meadow, I was able to set up within 50 yards of the car. I made myself comfortable in a director’s chair with side table. A backpack full of art supplies – my medium-sized kit – holds everything I might possibly need.

It’s a bit chilly and my daughter sits wrapped in a blanket reading a book while I quickly do two color sketches of the meadow. (“Are you done yet?”)

I use Schminck masking fluid for the milkweed pods. This is a new item for me and the control freak in me loves the tip of the dispenser. I’ll be posting about my small and medium-sized supply kits soon. (Large is my basement studio.) You can find links to specific art supplies I use on the resource page.

A plein air sketch from Big Meadows at Shenandoah National Park.


Later, one of those sketches was improved in the studio and is headed for a frame (upper right). The other has some good points and may be a reference for a finished piece later, but it is not deemed frame-worthy (shown at left). I like the color and variety of textures, but the values are too similar throughout.  I learned much by the study, so I’ll count it a success anyway.