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July 18, 2013
CITY OF GROSSE POINTE — The lure of an off-limits landscape was too much for guerrilla artist Susan Alexander Shipman.

On a trip to California, she interpreted signs warning the public away from an oceanside cliff as a personal invitation.

Shipman pulled a portable art studio, called a pochade box, from her purse and painted the landscape on a board roughly the size of her open hands.

“A small composition is sometimes trickier than a large one because you have to get it all in there,” said Shipman, a resident of the City of Grosse Pointe and member of the Grosse Pointe Artists Association.

She introduced Colorado resident Carl Judson, a plein air artist and manufacturer of wooden pochade boxes, to the Grosse Pointe Art Center last week.

“Plein air” means “open air.” “Pochade” is French for “pocket.”

“I’ve been a plein air painter since I was about 14,” Alexander said. “Carl makes the most wonderful pochade box that holds all the materials you need to go out and paint.”

“I paint outdoors with nature,” Judson said. “Seeing the world at one time and trying to represent it makes you begin looking at the world with a much more deliberate eye. You end up learning to see.”

Judson is a farmer and rancher by trade.

“I spent my whole life outdoors,” he said. “Until I started painting in my 40s, I hadn’t really seen the world around me.”

Painting got him looking at the world more carefully and analytically.

“That alone is a good reason to paint,” he said.

Each artist has a different vision of the world.

“You don’t have to capture everything,” Judson said. “In fact, you may end up capturing very little. There are painters who generalize to the point of abstraction.”

Others paint in precise detail.

“It’s a question of how well and effectively you do what you do, as opposed to what portion you decide to describe,” Judson said. “You’re taking a three-dimensional world and putting it in two dimensions, which is a bit of a magic trick anyway.”

He managed a 90,000-acre beef cattle ranch in the Colorado foothills south of Laramie, Wyo.

Reading Winston Churchill’s essay, “Painting as a Pastime,” changed his life.

“I said, that’s for me,” Judson said.

He grabbed materials and went painting.

“I realized I wasn’t up to the brain damage of my cowboys treating me as art critics,” Judson said. “So, I started making guerrilla boxes I could hide under the seat of my pickup. It’s that simple. I stuck with that format.”

His pochade boxes measure down to 5-by-7 inches. They typically have a slide-out palette, a hinged lid doubling as an easel and storage compartments for brushes, paint, cleaning supplies and at least four boards.

“I’m a real evangelist of painting enriching your life,” Judson said. “These boxes are a nice tool for that because they’re small and compact.”

For Alexander, having painting tools at the ready makes the creative process more spontaneous.

“Art is an ascending activity,” she said. “There are so many demanding activities in our lives now. But, when you’re painting, there’s nothing like that. When we’re creating, we’re closest to the creator.”

Judson advocates for the dedicated amateur.

“I think of ‘amateur’ in its original sense,” he said. “It is derived from the Latin, ‘to love.’ An amateur means to love something passionately.”

He considers himself an amateur.

“People who paint as amateurs have busy lives, but want a rewarding painting experience,” Judson said.

They also want to become better artists.

“One of the ways to get better is to get images behind you,” Judson said. “You make an incremental step forward when you resolve an image.”

He recommends painting small images.

“People who paint big images with little time are undertaking an often self-defeating path,” Judson said. “Paint small and frequently. Equip yourself so it’s not a big hassle. Paint as often as you can.”

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