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 him out. So 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 www.creatureartteacher.com 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.
My flight went super smooth. I flew from Brussels to Washington DC and from there to Sarasota with United Airlines. The border patrol was also quick and friendly. Within minutes of exiting the airport I found my rental car, loaded my bags in the trunk and drove into the sultry night.
I passed pink-lit hotels, fast-food chains, palm tree lanes, museums and office buildings. After 15 min I reached the neighbourhood of my AirBnb. The owner had provided instructions on how to enter the building and once inside my place 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!
The front yard of my AirBnB
Banyan trees casually decorating the street views in Sarasota neighbourhoods
Where the streets in Belgium are stripped of nature and look very monotonous, here the natural world seamlessly intertwines with society. I packed my bag and drove to the nearest supermarket to buy some breakfast. 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 find good 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 teaming with them.
They were very approachable!
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
Throughout the day, I was basically switching locations between Bayfront Park, South Lido Key and Centennial Park.
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. 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 observation.org were registered around that area.
After driving for about 45 minutes it was a bit disappointing to see the swamps were not as 'open' as I thought. It was getting late and I still had to eat diner so I decided to drive back.
The music on the radio was funny. Old school rock classics like Tom Petty were played more than 10 times a day. The reward of the day came when I was waiting in front of a traffic light. 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 still well worth the ride.
As the evening fell over the Sarasota Bay Area, I enjoyed a cold beer and some vegetable wraps with fries.
I drove back to my house, watched a good movie and prepared for tomorrow. The next 4 days would be completely dedicated to plain air painting, learning and meeting new people.
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.
Meeting the crew and all the people who came for the course felt really natural. 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.
Ronnie Williford instructing the students on values
Aaron Blaise explaining shadow and light
Students doing their magic
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 watching how Aaron and Ronnie were 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.
Our lunch was on the grounds of the Ringling estate next to the water. We had some Bottle nose dolphins visit us during the break.
When we finished our afternoon painting session, the group was already interacting well and we had such a great time 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 and Gainsborough.
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.
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.
Bear head studies
Day 5 & 6 - BBQ beach time & Marie Selby Gardens
These days were outstanding. The fifth day was basically spent painting at the beach, playing the guitar and having a BBQ with drinks and tons of fun. Even though it was early spring, it was very hot. Around 11 am I finished up my first painting and not a moment too late, since I was now standing in direct sunlight. It was especially the humidity that was killing me. Our painting also didn't dry as fast as usual.
Mike and Debbie, two great people
Gabriele and Tracy studying a painting in the afternoon
One of my paintings of the day
The last day was spent painting (what else?), but also enjoying the beautiful Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a tropical garden dedicated to the study and conservation of epiphytes.
Aaron giving instructions on how to paint a small boat in the water
One of the many butterflies of this area
My painting in the botanical gardens, trying to capture shadows falling on the building.
As always when having a blast, the day went fast and it was time to say goodbye 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 standpoint.
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.