Florida Painting Workshop

I spent early March in Florida painting with Disney veterans Aaron Blaise & Ronnie Williford and many other creative souls. Read the story here!

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Day 1 - "Not" Born in the USA

During my late night creative work, I like listening to all sorts of podcasts. They range from computer science stories to talks about the music industry, photography, complex conservation issues and occasionally mental health. But it's the ones with the creative themes that are the real treat. Listening to it makes me understand other artists better; things that motivate them, the techniques they use and their thought process.

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

One I regularly listen to is 'The Art of Aaron Blaise', a YouTube channel that is packed with talent, humor and kindness. It offers an insight in the creative mind of Aaron Blaise; a former Disney animator and director that went solo to share his knowledge through online animation, drawing and painting courses. I had first heard of him via my brother who studies animation. Told me I should check this 'Lion King dude' out. That's what's I did, and I've been hooked on the live streams ever since.

At some point Aaron's team announced that they would be organizing a painting workshop in sunny Florida together with Ronnie Williford (another former Disney animator). I rushed to their website to check the availability and to my delight there were still some spots left. That's pretty much how I randomly booked a week to Florida.

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

In the weeks anticipating the workshop, I mapped out my itinerary and arranged an AirBnb. I booked tickets to fly to Sarasota, Florida two days ahead of schedule to spend some time taking wildlife pictures and experience the 'Florida dream' like I remembered from the Carl Hiaasen satire novels I used to read when I was young. It wrote of an exotic land drenched in sun and hurricanes, wild spaces with alligators, ospreys, herons and pelicans, but also of an increasing environmental pressure of cities and construction projects, corrupt politicians and an explosive tourism industry. This state is currently the 4th largest in the US and has well over 21 million inhabitants.

Looking at my map, I'd say everyone lives a short card ride from the coastline. It didn't use to be like this though. At the end of the 19th century, Florida was mainly unspoilt and farmers were living at the northern state's borders to grow cotton and tobacco. The south was virtually uninhabitable land for farmers as the climate was too wet to grow crops. There were however large Native American tribes like the Miccosukee living in those areas, and as Florida's popularity grew in the 20th century, US federal and state governments put increasing pressure on these tribes to make way for the explosive population growth and large military training grounds. Needless to say I was eager to find out how political history, art, tourism and nature had shaped this Caribbean marvel over the past century.

Brown Pelican -

My flights went super smooth. I flew from Brussels to Washington DC and from there to Sarasota with United Airlines and can't complain about their hospitality. The border patrol was also very quick and friendly. Great experience! When I walked out of the airport, I was thrilled. It was 9pm and the temperature was just perfect. The air felt pleasantly warm and humid and I could smell the ocean. Within minutes, I found my rental car, loaded my bags in the trunk and opened them to get out my GPS.

I relaxed and drove into the sultry night. I passed pink-lit hotels, fast-food chains, palm tree lanes, museums and office buildings. The streets were so quiet though. You could hear crickets everywhere. Imagine driving into a calm night with a sea breeze gently coming from the open windows. I quickly reached the neighbourhood of my AirBnb. Again, a very silent and peaceful vibe welcomed me. I parked the car on the front porch. The owner had provided instructions on how to enter the building and once inside I found a comfortable private bedroom with a large ceiling fan. I unpacked a bit and texted my girlfriend I had safely arrived before falling asleep. Tomorrow I would explore the area on my own before starting the painting workshop the day after.

Day 2 - Discovery day

7 am - When I opened the door the next morning I was in a state of wonder. The street was already a jaw-dropping experience. The trees were so beautiful and huge!

The front yard of my AirBnB -

Everywhere I looked I saw gigantic trees and tons of birds that were singing their morning melody. Florida was waking up, but it was still early enough that I didn't see a person.

Huge Banyan trees casually decorating the street views in Sarasota neighbourhoods -

Literally walking in these avenues was an adventure on its own. Where the streets in Belgium are stripped of nature and look very monotonous, here the natural world seamlessly intertwines with humanity and infrastructure. It might seem like a strange thing to say for the people living here, but for a person like me who comes from a country that is saturated with agriculture and cityscapes, it is a welcome change of scenery.

I took my camera gear and drove to the nearest supermarket to grab some breakfast. Again I was stunned to see how a simple visit to the local Publix supermarket turned out to be a moment of pleasant surprise. There was so much food, and so much was plastic-free! I passed a green wall of vegetables and even found a large vegan food corner, which served as a source for my breakfast.

Back in the car I looked at my map to identify the best spots to photograph Brown Pelicans, a large shore bird that was supposed to be everywhere around here. These would be my primary focus, along with Roseate Spoonbills and Ospreys. For the pelicans I didn't have to look long. They were indeed everywhere. I drove around the main strip (Bayfront Drive) for awhile and in fact spent the morning around Bayfront Park and Centennial Park, but especially the trail parking of Centennial was very teaming with them.

Brown pelicans perched on a rubber structure in the bay of Centennial Park -

I was super stoked to see there were some amazing photo opportunities here. Some local fishermen stared at me as I approached these birds, as if it were something unusual. Duh! These are pelicans, guys! We do have some species in Europe like the Great white pelican or the beautiful Dalmatian pelicans, but they are not at all native to the area where I live.

When I noticed they were not really flying away, I creeped closer on my knees to get better shots. As I approached them, a pungent smell overwhelmed me. These pelicans reeked of guano and fish. Of course it was all part of the experience. A sunny seaside, the smell of ocean, old fishing boats, sea birds everywhere; this was exactly what I was expecting!

They were very approachable! At some point I couldn't get them properly into my viewfinder anymore. This resulted in some great close-ups ...

There were many other sea birds around the bay that deserved my attention, like herons, mergansers, egrets, gulls, etc. Some impressions of these below:

Ruddy Turnstone at the bay -

Common Egret being very curious -

It also didn't take long for me to spot my first Osprey of the trip. Throughout the day, I was basically switching locations between Bayfront Park, South Lido Key and Centennial Park. Ospreys were really everywhere too. I didn't know where to aim my lens at first.

Osprey staring me down on a roadside in South Lido Key -

My lunch break view at Nora Patterson Bay Island Park -

An Anhinga drying his feathers after a dive -

Although I was secretly hoping to get a sighting of a wild manatee, these proved to be less common than I anticipated. It is an icon of Florida, but some additional research showed that they are only common in certain spots more up North.

As evening fell, I drove all the way up to Robinson Reserve to try to spot some Roseate Spoonbills since most sightings on were registered around that area.

After driving for about 45 minutes I entered a more swampy landscape with lots of fields and swampy trees. I parked the car near the reserve, walked a good hour into it but didn't see any spoonbills. The reserve was also not as 'open' as I thought and I had a hard time finding open spaces around the lake. It was getting late and I still had to eat diner so I decided to drive back.

The music on the radio was hilarious. Old school rock classics like Tom Petty were played more than 10 times a day, I'm not kidding. The reward of the day came when I was waiting in front of a traffic light listening to yet another Guns 'n Roses melody. I looked up to a medium-sized bird that was flying over. I instantly recognised the pink breast and the yellow bill; a Roseate Spoonbill! No photos, but an amazing memory nonetheless.

And as the evening fell over the Sarasota Bay Area, I enjoyed a cold beer and some vegetable wraps with humous and fries.

I took this picture just during the sunset, an image depicting the typical vibe of the Florida coastal lifestyle. I drove back to my house, watched a good movie and prepared for tomorrow. Whereas today was used to fill up my SD cards with photos, the next 4 days would be completely dedicated to plain air painting, learning, meeting new people and having a blast.

Sarasota sunset -

Day 3 - The masters

It was 9 am and the sun was shining gently when I met everyone at the entrance of the J&M Ringling Museum of Art, the estate where John Ringling from the famous 7 Ringling Brothers lived, a family that shaped the modern circus of the 20th century. The museum hosts an incredible variety of European, Asian and American contemporary art.

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Meeting the crew and all the people who came for the course felt really natural. Super kind people, super relaxed vibe. We headed onto the estate grounds to start our first day of painting. The museum was in the front while the estate (above) was sitting by the side of the Gulf, directly looking out on the water. Fantastic scenery with tons of light draped onto palm trees and old Banyan trees. The place was screaming for a painting. So we did!

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Ronnie Williford instructing the students on values - Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Aaron Blaise explaining shadow and light - Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Students doing their magic - Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Photo by © Cathlyn Driscoll - painting by Aaron

My first painting of the workshop.

The morning flew by and as I took a break from my painting I was admiring other people's work and seeing how Aaron and Ronnie were dedicated to instructing the students. Vedanta, Nick, Steve and Dustin were arranging food, art supplies, transport, photographs, etc. so that Aaron and Ronnie could focus on the painting. The team really took diet choice into account. For vegans like myself Nick and Vedanta made sure we always had something delicious to eat. I very much appreciate this effort.

Our lunch was on the grounds of the Ringling estate next to the water. We had some bottlenose dolphins visit us during the break, can you imagine! I kept being surprised at how close wildlife comes here.

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

When we finished our afternoon painting session, the group was already interacting very well and we had so much fun visiting the Ringling Art museum afterwards. A strange experience however, since the interior felt like stepping into a Parisian museum: beautiful baroque architecture with paintings from Rubens, Bernini, Gainsborough and an interesting abstract artist Syd Solomon.

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

What I especially remember from this visit is how mesmerised Aaron and Ronnie were by these paintings. Standing next to them and hear them analyse and admire the craftsmanship in these paintings was a unique experience.

The next days we would be visiting some entirely new places and paint from entirely different subjects.

Day 4 - The Celery Fields and the Sanctuary

I woke up early to go for a walk outside of the city. Our group would be meeting somewhere around there, and one of the other students told me I should visit the Celery fields for a morning hike. It was a swampy nature reserve full of alligators and waterfowl, with a large green hill overlooking the area. The hike resulted in the following wildlife encounters!

Green Heron searching the river bank for food.

Osprey on the nest site, a very common side around Sarasota.

A typical scene in the area. The water plants were full of grackles catching insects.

'Gators casually crossing the pond!!

This Limpkin was very curious. He almost walked up to me, but was suspicious at the same time. Pretty funny to see him getting doubts as I moved towards him.

Nanday Parakeets were sunbathing in the warm sunlight while the frivolous melody of Red-winged Blackbird could be heard in the background.

I was deep into the reserve when I noticed the time. Hell, the workshop was starting in 15 minutes! The way out was a bit less relaxed to say the least. BUT: I managed to get right on time. Wouldn't want to be that guy ...

The place where we met was this small rescue sanctuary, where Aaron gave lessons in animal anatomy. A good day with lots of things to learn about wildlife art for which I am very grateful.

Aaron teaching us animal anatomy

Aaron co-directed Disney's 44th feature film Brother Bear, and seeing him draw bears brought me back to my youth. It's exactly these people and their ability to evoke emotions that helped shape my admiration for wildlife today.

Bear head studies

Day 5 & 6 - BBQ beach time & Marie Selby Gardens

These days were absolutely outstanding. The fifth day was basically spent painting at the beach, playing guitar and having a bbq with cocktails and tons of laughter. Even though it was early spring, it was becoming very hot very quickly. Around 11 am I finished up my first painting and not a moment too late, since I was standing in direct sunlight on a white beach. Steve (one of the crew members) was telling me the summer months are unbearable and people just stay inside. It was especially the humidity that was killing me. Our painting also didn't dry as fast as usual. Quite the experience!

Photo by © Dustin Blaise - Starting our morning session, trying to paint a seaside scene with turquoise water.

Photo by © Dustin Blaise - trying the 'vertical pallet approach'

Photo by © Dustin Blaise - getting hot

Photo by © Dustin Blaise - Mike and Debbie, two great people who were part of the workshop, both with a typical American enthusiasm and kindness

Photo by © Dustin Blaise - Gabriele and Tracy studying a painting in the afternoon

One of my paintings of the day, I love the light in this place!

Photo by © Gabby Young - pizza and burgers, even vegan burgers for me!

Photo by © Dustin Blaise - during our evening BBQ we had a private concert from our two instructors

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

The last day was again spent painting of course, but also enjoying the beautiful botanical gardens of Marie Selby, a tropical garden dedicated to the study and conservation of epiphytes. To be brutally honest I didn't walk into it, as I was too focused on painting the main area, with large Banyan Trees and the beautiful main building.

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

Photo by © Dustin Blaise - instructions on how to paint a small boat in the water

Photo by © Dustin Blaise - one of the many butterflies of this area

My painting in the botanical gardens, trying to capture shade falling on the building.

Photo by © Dustin Blaise

As always when having a blast, the day went fast and it was time to say good bye to everyone. I highly, highly recommend anyone that is into painting to do this workshop. It is an absolute joy to be surrounded by these people, both from a social and an artistic point of view. You feel constantly inspired and instructed and well taken care of.

Photo by © Dustin Blaise - the full crew and me. What a trip this was. I produced many paintings and made various new friends. Productivity comes naturally when you are surrounded by goodness and amazing environments. It gave me a real motivation boost to continue to walk this creative path.

The most important things I learned during this workshop:

  • The Blaise family is a heart-warming, kind and funny bunch of people. I would take a workshop with them anytime.

  • Use vibrant, intense colours that really make your painting pop, especially for plain air painting. This will ensure you capture the intense lights and shadows. Colours I recommend are Opera Rose, Lemon Yellow, Transparent Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, French Ultramarine, Quinacridone Magenta, Cerulean Blue, Manganese Blue and Payne's Grey.

  • Make sure your underdrawing has good proportions. It doesn't have to be detailed at all, just make sure the general vibe is right.

  • Don't try to paint always, instead watch instructors paint and pay attention to how they layer the colours, how they build the painting and determine their thought process. This is in my opinion one of the most important things.

  • Don't compare. You have to be in your zone, and be confident about your own work. This aspect pushes you through the development of your painting better.

  • Be VERY open to critique. Listen to people who are experienced. This is gold.

  • Most important of all: have a nice time!

PS: for those curious - I barely escaped the US lockdown as COVID-19 was getting its grip onto the world fast. I managed to get out of the country heading straight for Europe 2 days before all borders closed and flights were cancelled. I realised I was very lucky, because some people actually couldn't come to the workshop because of flight cancellations, and one of the students in the workshop had a delay of almost two weeks before she was able to head back home to the UK. Ronnie Williford and the Blaise family did an amazing job in taking care of her until she left. Soooo friendly!

See ya



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