BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
Writing a nature blog is a great way to meet new people and learn more about how others are inspired by nature in the Chicago area. One person that I’ve got to know a little since I started writing Nature in Chicagoland is Melissa, of Melissa Blue Fine Art. We’ve had occasional online conversations about my blog, which have made me think about the world in new ways. I’ve also enjoyed reading her blog and viewing her beautiful nature-oriented artwork. I see my blog, Nature in Chicagoland, as not only a place where I can share my experiences via the written word and photographs, but also a place to spotlight the work of others in the Chicago area who are creating art, working to protect the environment, or otherwise making a difference in the world. With that said, I asked Melissa to tell me more about her work, provide some tips for aspiring nature artists, and list some of her favorite nature destinations in the area.
Q. Can you tell me a little about your work?
A. I’m happy to tell you about my work. Like a lot of budding artists, I had gained some skills in school but wasn’t sure yet how I was going to use them. About that time I was also a new butterfly monitor for the Nature Conservancy and the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and I was assigned Illinois Beach State Park. Talk about a plum assignment!
Q. What inspired you to create paintings of nature in the Chicago area? Where do you paint? En plein air? Indoors? Or both?
A. As you know, when you pick up one strand in nature, you find it connected to another, and another. Soon I was learning the plants that the butterflies need, and then the geology that shaped the habitat these plants and butterflies are in. It was fascinating and I found myself wanting to respond to what I saw by painting it. My first attempts were in the field, painting en plein air. I have to admit, I hated it. Flies bit my ankles, the light changed too rapidly—it isn’t for everyone. I began instead to make sketches and take reference photos which I then used in a studio at home. Currently my studio is my dining room.
When you use reference photos, there are some important things to bear in mind. I feel it is of utmost importance to use only your own material! Do not lift images you find on the internet. This is stealing, and it only leads to inauthentic paintings so just don’t do it. Also, it is important not to lean on the photo. It is there only as a guide to get the details right. It is up to the artist to create a strong composition. While it is true that I have a treasure trove of photos, that is just the tip of the iceberg for me. They represent thousands of hours I’ve spent in the field, looking and learning. It is important to know your subject.
For a very long time I was concerned with improving my skills at representing what I saw. I’m known for my use of color, and for my botanical accuracy. Lately though I’ve been seeking to elevate my work to the next level, to bring in more creativity to my paintings. This is very scary. What will the new work look like? I’m not entirely sure. I imagine it will be a lot more abstract. Also, I am revisiting the idea of painting on location. I’ve invested in some equipment to make this easier and am scoping out some places to try.
Q. What are a few of your favorite destinations in the area?
A. Some of my favorite locations are Illinois Beach State Park, some stretches of the Des Plaines River Trail, and several of the Lake County Forest Preserves. If you go to Illinois Beach State Park, please stay on the trail at all times. This habitat is very fragile; basically, it is a thin veil of life lying over sand. Footsteps easily tear the fabric and it takes decades to heal.
More recently I’ve been amazed by the beauty and diversity to be found at Grant Woods Nature Preserve in Lake County. It is worth checking out, for sure. I’ve also done some work at the lovely Chicago Botanic Garden.
Q. Any advice for aspiring nature painters?
A. What I would tell aspiring artists is, learn your subject, and never stop learning about art. If you are going to paint birds, for example, study their anatomy. Go to a museum to see the stuffed specimens. And then, look at how great artists have painted birds. As you work you’ll run into problems you aren’t sure how best to solve. I’ve found that it helps tremendously to look at the art of the masters to see how they addressed those same problems. But, learn from them, don’t copy them! If you paint on location, be respectful. Ask permission if it is a private property. Don’t disturb the plants and creatures, and make sure not to leave any trash behind. It is a great idea to take a photo or two and make a sketch. That way when you get back to the studio you’ll have the information you need to finish the painting.
Q. Can you tell me about your blog and how readers can purchase your original art and prints?
A. My blog can be found at Melissabluefineart.com. You can buy a painting directly from the site, or contact me by email to inquire about a painting. I do have some prints available, and will be adding to that over time. My prints are matted and in a protective sleeve, and cost $35, which includes shipping within the continental United States.
Copyright (opening text) Andrew Morkes
Melissa, of Melissa Blue Fine Art, owns the copyright to her images and her interview.
2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT
Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.
Interested in a career that protects the environment? I frequently write about job opportunities in environmental science, environmental activism, and clean energy in my career newsletter, the CAM Report. Of course, it also offers information on hot careers, the latest on internships and salaries, and interviews with workers–from our nation’s planetary protection officer, to entertainment engineers, to crossword puzzle creators. Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing.
My College Spotlightnewsletter often covers interesting environmental majors. It also provides information on admissions trends, scholarships, and much more. Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing.
Finally, my book, They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Edition, provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. Click on the title to read the table of contents, the introduction, and a sample chapter.
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