On Location | Michelle Chrisman

Michelle Chrisman

By Bonnie Gangelhoff; Photos by David Cox

What do you prefer about plein-air painting over creating landscape works in the studio? I feel that it teaches you everything the impressionists taught us. When they left the studio, they went out and learned how the visual world works. I believe if you are going to be good painter, you need to know how the visual world works. You only learn it really well by going outside and painting light and shadow patterns. I think the studio kills spontaneity.

I was a ballet dancer, and I draw a parallel to ballet dancing—you spend years practicing all the rules and then take it out on the stage and feel free to emote. If you are going to be an excellent painter, you have to put the brush miles in. You have to see how nature is constantly employing the rules and breaking the rules.

Why do you enjoy painting in the Abiquiu area? I just spent the last four days far south in New Mexico, and as I headed back north and got closer to Abiquiu, I noticed how the landscape gets more interesting. There is so much more variety of color. There is a wonderful contrast of warms and cools. You have red earth and cool sage bushes. You get beautiful shapes and layers of mesas and cliff formations.

Michelle Chrisman

What are some of the challenges of painting on location? Well, one of the best times to paint is early morning, and I’m not a morning person. I’m nocturnal. So I have to discipline myself and go to bed early. Also, if you are going to be a plein-air painter, you can’t be a fair-weather one. You have to love every season, including winter. You have to dress right and learn to put linseed oil in your paint to keep it from freezing. I fell in love with painting winter in Taos, with the wind blowing in my face. I was determined to capture the visceral feel of the place.

What are your most memorable experiences while painting on location? I’ve learned to carry a gun. I believe if you are a woman out painting in isolated areas, you need to. Some of my friends make fun of me, but I always carry a pistol. Once a girlfriend and I were painting in an isolated area overlooking the Chama River when we saw a carload of guys hiding behind some bushes. Something told me to go and get my gun. And I did. I held it in the light and flashed it and the guys drove off. I’ve also had a big family of tarantulas walk under my feet, which was scary. Another time I had just finished a painting and a big wind came up and blew it off my easel and onto my chest. I paint with thick paint, and I had to pull the painting off of myself.

She is represented by: Wilder Nightingale Fine Art Gallery, Taos, NM; Joe Wade Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM; Adobe Fine Art, Ruidoso, NM; Patrician Design, Albuquerque, NM; Bright Rain Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; Naked Horse Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Ernest Fuller Fine Art, Denver, CO; Mariposa Fine Art, St. George, UT; www.michellechrisman.com.

Featured in June 2008