Plein Air Painting Florida - a Traveling Artist's Story

April 2013

The opportunity to visit a long time friend in Florida and do plein air painting while there provided a double benefit and purpose for the trip.  Florida is my 14th State in the Paint the States Quest.  My husband and I stayed in the beautiful community of Stuart on the Atlantic coast.  Our friend Ute has a home there and we stayed with her for 4 nights.  Thank you Ute for your hospitality!  

Stuart is north of West Palm Beach – about 45 minutes drive on Interstate 95.  April must be the perfect month to visit Florida as the weather is just right.  Our whole trip was blessed with temperatures around 82F – and no rain, even in the Everglades and Florida Keys. 

Stuart, Florida

Our first evening in Stuart, Ute and I went out walking in her neighborhood which is right on the St. Lucie River.  I was on the hunt for painting locations, and had no trouble finding at least 2 right away – all within easy walking distance from the house.  I like to get up early and go out painting when my traveling companions are non-painters. It is less disruptive to them, plus the early morning light is best, with the heat and humidity usually tolerable at that hour.  Waiting until later in the day invites the possibility of thunder storms, and other things get in the way – such as going out for dinner and socializing with friends. 

Early the next morning (7.30am) I set out to do my first Florida painting.  I decided on a canal with palm trees, and nice reflections.  I also found a convenient hedge to shelter me from the sun.  I painted in a small pocket neighborhood park.  It was fantastic to be painting again after more than a week of not painting.  I needed my art fix!  I quickly came to the realization that painting landscapes in Florida will be about the sky and water, plus the lush vegetation.  The land is very flat with no hills or mountains.   

I had purchased 3 new synthetic oil painting brushes from Rosemary & Co. while at the Plein Air Convention in Monterey the previous week.  The brushes are hand made in England and are truly fantastic!  Good tools make a difference.  

I painted happily for one and a half hours.  As I painted I overheard snatches of conversation from morning neighborhood walkers.  Some with dogs.  Practically everyone in this part of Florida seems to be retired – everyone is relaxed with no pressures from jobs to worry about.  Other worries predominate – such as health issues.    Photo of my first Florida painting, done that morning in Stuart, is above.

St. Lucie Riverfront, Stuart, Florida

During a walk around the neighborhood, I spotted a vacant lot on the river front – it had beautiful views and looked like a great painting spot.  Ute told me that the house that used to be there was destroyed by Hurricane Frances in 2004.  During the hurricane the metal roof of the house lifted off and landed 2 blocks away.  You can see the scars on the palm trees as it passed over head! Two weeks later Hurricane Jeanne hit in the same spot. 

Ute rode out both hurricanes in her house which was fine – thankfully it is built to take it.  Ute happened to have met the owner of the vacant lot, he lives two houses down.  We stopped there and I asked permission to paint on his lot.  He graciously said yes and asked to see the painting that may result.  So on my second morning in Stuart I painted on the vacant lot.  The painting shown above is the result.

 It took me longer than usual to decide on my composition as there were so many possibilities presented.  In the end, after doing 3 or 4 thumbnail sketches, I decided to focus on a small patch across the St. Lucie River with palm trees, distant homes and Sea Grape bush in the foreground – the ever changing and beautiful Florida sky was also a focus of course.  I had a great time painting but was glad I had the property owner’s permission to paint there.  Neighbors were looking at me with curiosity and then later, a Police car drove by.  We plein air painters can look a bit sketchy in our bag lady clothes to those who don’t know what we are up to! 

Things to do in Stuart, Florida

There are 2 excellent places to visit in Stuart aside from their lovely beach.  One is the Oceanographic Society.  This is a preserve area where one can learn about the Florida mangroves and watch game fish being fed.  The super large  lagoon contains game fish such as Tarpon, sharks, rays and various other large predatory fish.  Docent led tours take you through the mangrove areas and you learn all about how beneficial mangroves are to the coastal ecology of Florida.  The other place we visited with Ute is the Elliott Museum (very close to the Oceanographic Society).  While we were there the Elliott had a display of Leonardo de Vinci’s inventions and machines.  Someone had made large working models from the drawings in his famous notebooks.  There was also an impressive display of classic cars and trucks from the 1920s and 1930s.  The Elliott Museum has rotating displays and hosts traveling exhibits such as the Leonard machine exhibit. 

Fort Pierce and A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery

A.E.Backus is considered one of the top Florida landscape painters.  He lived and painted in Fort Piece.  His works were hung in the L.B.J. Library in Texas and Senate offices in Washington D.C.  He was a great painter of the lush Florida landscape and dynamic skies.  Check out his paintings on-line if you haven’t heard of him before.  He was well known in the 1960s. 

If you visit Stuart or Jenson Beach try to eat at the New England Seafood Restaurant at Jenson Beach – it is truly fantastic with amazingly fresh seafood of all kinds, and great service.  Casual dress and atmosphere of course.

Florida Keys

Having heard about the Keys for so long, we decided to drive there to see what they are all about.  The Florida Turnpike runs right down the middle of Florida from North to South.  You pay tolls of course but it is worth it.  We were able to get from Stuart down to the Keys in just over 3 hours time, going 75mph most of the way. 

We stayed on Key Largo in the small town of Tavernier.  We got a 2 bedroom condo in the Ocean Point Suites condo complex for 2 nights.  There is a nice beach inside the complex and a good neighborhood park called Harry Harris Park just down the road. 

The landscape is completely flat with mangroves dominating the vegetation.  The Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic on the other, the Keys stretch over 120 miles from the East to Key West.  Gorgeous turquoise and violet seas and dynamic skies present themselves at all turns.  The first 20 miles of the Keys have a lot of commercial strip malls along side the road.  As you get further along, things become less congested and more Caribbean in feel.  

I got up early on our first morning in the Keys.  I had a restless night on a really bad bed.  I headed out to Harry Harris park just about 2 miles away from our condo.  I had checked out the location the night before and decided to paint on a jetty area, with the eastern sun behind me. 

I painted mangroves, ocean and sky and added a silhouette of a pelican flying by.  It was quiet and pleasant with only a few boaters and joggers in the park.  The entrance fee is $5.00 for the whole day.  The photo above is of my first Florida Keys painting. 

Islamorada, Florida Keys

Route 1 from the mainland to Key West is about 120 miles one way.  The highway is built up above the small islands that form the chain of Keys.   A lot of the road is in bridge form to get from island to island.  Rather than drive the whole way to Key West, we decided to go about 40 miles along the Oversea Highway and take our time.  I have learned my lesson in previous Paint the States trips and not to spend all my time driving when I could be painting.  There are a lot of strip shops, marinas and hotels along the Oversea Highway from Key Largo to Islamorada (about 30 miles along from the main land) with the frequency of commercial activity getting less and less as you proceed further from the mainland. 

Things open up quite a bit at Islamorada and becomes more of what I was expecting – beautiful open vistas of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico with turquoise water and fabulous sky.  We found a good spot to pull over as we approached Islamorada Key. 

I set up my easel with its legs in the ocean and got to work painting my Florida Keys ocean and sky painting at mid day.  I had shade from the mangrove trees and enjoyed some quiet interludes in between the roaring of jet ski and power boat engines.  I guess they had gone ashore to get more gas and then hit it hard again. It was a visual rather than auditory feast!  All part of the adventure of plein air painting in strange and new places.    Photo of that painting is shown above.

A Great Place to Eat on Islamorada – Lazy Days Restaurant on the beach – wow!  This place rocks.  We had lunch at a table right on the beach – this is exactly the kind of place I was hoping we would find.  It reminded me of my time living in the Seychelles Islands long ago.  We had island style live music along with our late lunch.  I had the coconut shrimp salad and a cold beer.  A nice reward for doing two paintings in one morning. The Coconut shrimp was fantastic.  My husband had Oysters Rockerfeller  and Ute had escargot prepared with lots of garlic and butter.  Sitting at that restaurant on the beach made up for the noisy jet skis earlier in the day.  Listening to the music, feeling the sand underfoot, the warm moist sea wind in my hair, looking at the turquoise water and fabulous sky – a little slice of heaven was found and truly enjoyed at this place in the Keys. 

A Super place to eat on Key Largo  is The Fish House – a very popular place with lines of hungry folks waiting to get in.  They also have a fish shop if you want to buy and fix your own.  They are efficient and got us our table in about 20 minutes – not bad for a Saturday night.  Excellent Mahi Mahi, oysters, scallops and all followed up with Key Lime Pie (of course).  A fun place that I can recommend with pleasure.

Everglades National Park – Eastern Entrance at Homestead, Florida

It only took us about an hour to get from Key Largo to the eastern entrance of Everglades National Park in Homestead.  Rather than spend our whole visit of a few hours driving from place to place in the park, we decided to focus on the Royal Palm trail area.  It is paved or on a boardwalk above the water.  We saw an amazing amount of life – birds, fish, turtles, alligators and plants.  It is so heartwarming to see such an abundance and diversity of life.  Nature is magnificent.  I find such peace and reassurance in it all.  

My painting of the Great Blue Heron is  shown above.  Due to lack of bug spray and the constant threat of downpours that morning, I did not paint “plein air” in the Everglades.  My painting of the Heron was done a day or two later while my memory was still fresh – I used some of my photos to assist.  Normally I do not paint from photos, but in this case I made an exception to my personally imposed “rule” about that subject.  There is no comparison to the personal and soulful experience of painting from life rather than photos.  It was good to experience the difference!  And know again why plein air painting is so captivating on so many levels. 


Where to Stay in Homestead, Florida

We stayed at a wonderful small privately owned hotel in Homestead – it is the Redland Hotel.  Built in 1904, it is the oldest hotel in this part of Florida.  The Redland is a delightfully simple yet elegant Victorian style 2 story building with modern comforts including free wifi.  Good beds, air conditioning and pleasant owners make this a gem if you want to experience something a bit more interesting than the usual chain hotel.  Not too expensive either at $120 per night for a king size bedroom with breakfast included.  The hotel is a short drive of a few miles to the entrance to the Everglades National Park. 

This concludes my travel/art stories about plein air painting in Florida.  Thank you Florida!  You are beautiful. Hasta La Vista!

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