Up North, far enough that one has to go down to get to Duluth, is a visually dramatic place. Nature has had free rein to build and paint in extravagant scale and diversity, showering with sunlight, darkening with rain, and swaddling in snow, at will. Like the French countryside and the red rock canyons of the American West, Minnesota’s northern reaches inspire painters, but it takes more than an educated eye to be a plein-air painter of the north.
It takes robust outerwear, maybe some snowshoes, and a custom chopper mitt, says Neil Sherman. He grew up in southeastern Minnesota, found a love of the North Woods on family vacations to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and studied art at St. John’s University. He lived for a time in Virginia, Minn., before moving to St. Paul to study with Joseph Paquet, a master of plein-air — that is, painting in the open air. Sherman had been working as a picture framer, so in 2005, when he heard Sivertson Gallery in Grand Marais needed a framer, it seemed providential.
Sherman, 47, still works full time at Sivertson Gallery and lives in tiny Hovland, using his time off to capture the ephemeral moods of the far north in oil and canvas. He has exhibited at galleries in Grand Marais, Duluth and St. Paul; at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and at the Plein Air Southwest Salon in Dallas. He offers two workshops per year.
Sherman shared in a conversation some of the practicalities of his unique approach.
Why plein-air? What do you like about it?
I like being outside, and there’s an immediacy to it. When you’re out in nature, trying to capture something that’s fleeting, you pick up that feeling. When you’re up against a time window, you’re forced to pick up the essence of the scene. In the studio you can overthink things. Living on the North Shore, I paint in spots where people roll up in a car, hop out and take a picture. I am more engaged in the scene.
What are the special considerations of plein-air painting, as opposed to studio painting, especially in winter?
The biggest challenge is dealing with all the clothing you need to stay warm. You’re not moving, you’re standing in one place. It’s not like skiing where you’re moving all the time. Staying warm, especially when it’s really cold, takes mittens. Yeah, I paint with mittens. I learned it from another artist. If you poke a hole in a chopper mitt right at the top where the seam is, it works pretty well. You lose some movement in your arms because you’re so bundled. The chopper mitt is a little awkward with the weight of the brush on the mitten, but for the most part, the dexterity is not too different. If it’s cold, I paint for half an hour, then jump up and down or go for short hike to warm up. The good thing is the paint doesn’t freeze because it’s oils — linseed oil is the medium that helps the paint flow even if it’s really cold. Sometimes the tubes get stiff and hard to squeeze, so I keep some in my coat pocket, next to my body, so they stay warm.
What do you haul into the outback?
I’ve got two easels — one is the size of a cigar box that you can attach to a tripod. It holds canvasses and paints and fits into a backpack. I can ski or snowshoe in with a backpack for little paintings, like an 8-by-10 canvas. If I want to do a big painting, like 16 by 20, I use this homemade sled to pull everything in. I found this YouTube video with DIY instructions; you attach PVC pipe to one of those plastic sleds, and the other end of the pipe to a rock climbing harness. It’s kind of fun, easy to tool around. If I’m on a day outing, I have a canvas carry, looks like a suitcase, that holds a bunch of canvasses. I ski or snowshoe in to a place, like Rose Lake, which is off the Gunflint Trail. It’s not difficult, maybe a mile or two from the landing. It’s right on the Canadian border. You can get on top of some bluffs for some great views. There’s a cool waterfall that freezes. It’s a fun little trek to get there.
How long does a painting take?
Rose Lake, for example. I can ski in by 7:30 or 8, be painting by 9, and spend most of the day painting. Maybe three hours on a painting, two paintings done, and I’m skiing out right at dusk. Depending on weather, sometimes in the early morning, you have a half-hour, hour before the light changes; same with sunset. You have to paint really fast to hopefully catch the light effect you’re going for.
How do you choose a location?
A lot of time, it’s based on what the light is doing. I’ll be driving around looking for an interesting light effect. There are a few spots I like to go back to because they have interesting geologic shapes. The Superior Hiking Trail is good for that. I like to record different times of day, or different seasons at the same location. The spot changes. There’s this tombolo, which is a gravel beach, that has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Waves from big storms have literally moved the beach.
Describe your process. Do you sketch in basic shapes? What do you paint first?
I do a drawing on the canvas to give myself an outline to work with. If it’s sunny, I paint all the shadows, then go for the sunlight. It’s a method I learned from Joe [Paquet] and I stick with that. If I have to paint fast, I might dispense with the drawing and jump right into the colors, to capture that before it goes away. Just blobs of color and shapes to start.
Is the prismatic palette technique you use particularly suited to landscape or plein-air painting?
The term describes the colors I use, which are based on the prism of light. Using those colors allows you to capture any color in nature. Ocher is not in the prism, for example, but you can mix brown from the other colors. Prismatic palette has a range of colors that’s perfect for landscapes — it allows subtle degrees of value, warm or cool.
How do you know when the painting is finished?
That’s a tough one. When I feel like all the colors are what I want, the shapes are working well and the values are all good. … Toward the end I spend more time looking at it than painting. I try to find things that are awkward or uncomfortable. When I can look at it and not feel uncomfortable, then it’s finished.
Has it ever been too cold or inclement to finish painting?
Yeah, definitely. One time I skied in to Rose Lake when it was at least 10 below zero. I guess I like to be nihilistic, but that was my day off so that was when I had to go. I painted for 15 minutes at a time, then jogged around to stay warm. When I visited Dave and Amy [Freeman, activists-adventurers who spent a year living in the BWCA] I remember I had to paint really fast because I just had ski boots on and my feet were getting really cold. Once I got caught in the rain, so that puts the kibosh on things. I like a gray day, actually. For me, there’s something subtle, moody and quiet about overcast days that I like.
There are not many outdoor winter painters — maybe not enough nihilists?
The technology for staying warm has changed a lot, so that’s helpful. But you have to have a certain type of demeanor to stand outside for three hours. I’m built for the cold; it doesn’t bother me too much. I do get hot easily.
Favorite painting spots in the state?
Oh, man, there are so many. Well, definitely Rose Lake. I like to paint in Duluth when I get down there. I’d like to spend more time in Rochester — I grew up down in the southeast part of Minnesota. That area is fascinating to me.
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.