Painting in a cave!!??!!
You just never know where a plein air painter may turn up; one of the local parks, a sidewalk on Main Street, parked along a back road, or even In a cow pasture …….but in a cave??? Yep, they’ve even been known to turn up in a cave too!
I, along with some of my fellow plein air painters, recently had an awesome opportunity to set up and paint in a cave, Onondaga Cave to be exact. This location was listed on our schedule to paint during the recent Steelville Plein Air Event. When I noticed the location on the list, I just assumed it meant that we would be painting around the Onondaga Cave State Park grounds. That was, until I received an email from the event organizers asking for confirmation of how many painters wanted to paint inside the cave. “Wait, what?? We’re going to be allowed to paint inside the cave??? Count me in! How many times will you be allowed to paint in a cave??!!? “ I like to think of myself as more of an adventurous plein air painter. I like to get off the beaten path, so, this was definitely a must!
There was a brief list of rules, one of the most important being necessary steps to protect the cave by not touching any of the formations, putting a drop cloth under our equipment and not spilling any fluids or paint while in there. Pack out everything you packed in (standard trail ethics). Dress in layers because the “cave weather” would be cold and damp. Try to leave room or step out of the way when tours or other visitors came through. And finally, make sure we were escorted in and accounted for throughout the day.
This cave is a state run/commercial cave so, there were certain amenities such as; stairs and walkways to set up on, limited lighting, and guides to help out if needed. With that said, it was still a plein air adventure! The limited lighting was primarily on some of the cave features themselves and along parts of the walkway so, it was up to the painters to figure out how to see their palette and surface well enough to actually paint something. In some parts of the cave, painters were occasionally dripped on or even experienced “full-on” rain throughout the day as ground water seeped in. Everything ended up with varying degrees of dampness and depending on your medium…..it potentially wreaked havoc on your finished painting. There were also the temperatures to deal with. Since I am a painter that prefers the cold temps over the heat any day, I thought the cave temperatures were fantastic painting temps., especially since it was very hot and humid above ground. However, I will admit, towards the end of my last painting, I did notice that I could see my own breathe and it was only after I started the hike out of the cave that I realized my nose was rather cold. Lastly, the backpacking…..everything had to be packed in and depending on the location you chose, it was an uphill hike.
No worries, by the time I reached the spot in the cave that “spoke” to me, I paused and caught my breath, unpacked and set up…..I thought to myself again, “How lucky I am to get this opportunity. The time, out-of breath, the dampness, it is all worth it!” I immediately got to work and painted all day, only stopping once for a quick break. I painted three paintings; one 11”x14”, one 8”x10”, and one 6”x8” because I had decided I was going to make the most of this opportunity and paint as long as they allowed us to be there.
My paintings aren’t necessarily masterpieces but, how often do you get a painting that was painted entirely on location, underground, in a cave?!? It was such a peaceful experience, almost meditative that each time I look at one of my paintings; I’m taken back to that peace. Just the soft light of the cave’s limited cave lighting, my book lights illuminating my easel, the focus of applying paint onto canvas, and the soft drips of new cave formations in the making….just enough to break the silence……total painting zen.
Another fellow painter/friend wrote a fantastic article; “Plein Air Goes Underground”, on the experience of painting in the cave and interviewed several of the other artists. I suggest you give it a read…..she is a bit of a better writer than yours truly…..you’ll be glad you checked it out! Here’s the link: http://www.marciawillman.com/