Mountain sketch

How to do anything: make art in the wild

Chances are, throughout your workday, your left brain does a lot of heavy lifting. You’re setting realistic goals, coming up with unique strategies, and finding logical ways to see your plans through. And if you’re someone who loves the outdoors, you’re likely intermittently daydreaming about your next getaway. That’s when your right brain takes over. This is your free spirit side, full of imagination, keen to seek out sensory experiences, get moving, tap into your feelings and express yourself.

Everyone has a dominant side, and while right-brained types are usually considered more naturally creative, the difference between right- and left-brained is in the approach. Lefties see details first and piece them together to form a larger picture, while righties use visual reference and see a whole before working into the finer details. So, even if you may not consider yourself a “creative person,” you’re actually already tapping into your more expressive hemisphere when you’re out hiking, taking in a meteor shower, or trying not to trip on tree roots on a trail run.

MEC’s Digital Asset Administrator Jessa Gilbert is a sterling example of letting your creativity flow outside. The New York native moved to Vancouver in 2013 and has been on a constant mission to meld her love of activity with her desire to explore outside, one that saw her transition from figurative painter to landscape artist.

artist Jessa Gilbert

Left to right: Jessa sketching on Mount Seymour at sunrise (photo by Steve Tan); “Saxifrage Mountain,” 2016, 30 x 40in. acrylic on canvas.

“This place is magic,” says Jessa. “I take my studio outside into the wilderness, bringing along my sketchbook, watercolour paper, pens, brushes – the whole gamut, just on a smaller scale – and try to replicate the feelings and the sentiments of either getting to a peak or being within the environment.” When Jessa gets back into the studio, she works with acrylic paint at a larger scale. “I think about how I show the passing of time on a two-dimensional plane; how I take the trip at large and create something that speaks to how it was, or how we look at the environment around us.”

Another crew taking the studio outside is one of MEC Outdoor Nation’s newest Toronto-based collaborators (they were granted $5000 at the 2016 Think Outside Summit). Outdoor Studio is all about getting young urban creatives outside and connected to nature – the group links interested parties up with wilderness guides, outdoor instructors and creative mentors on multi-day trips and excursions. The studio is run by four creatives with a passion for getting outside: graphic designers Franziska Brand and Sarah Paul, visual artist Sarah Carlson, and advertising and marketing specialist Cherie Tsang.

outdoor studio

Left to right: Franziska Brand, Sarah Carlson, Sarah Paul and Cherie Tsang of Outdoor Studio; Sarah P., Cherie and Sarah C. getting creative outdoors.

“Making typically happens in a four-walled studio or in front of a computer screen. As a result, many creatives are unfamiliar with the outdoors and simply don’t have the knowledge to go out and explore on their own,” explains Sarah Carlson. “The great irony is, a desire to be connected to the land is a narrative woven through the creative histories of art, design and film. Outdoor Studio is a space that allows creatives time to meditate, explore and physically reconnect to natural spaces.”

Ready to join Jessa and Outdoor Studio and let your right brain take the reins? Here’s how to get outside and start making:

1. Let go of your work zone

Being creatives themselves, Outdoor Studio was finding their colleagues don’t get outside as much because of a production-focused mentality, project deadlines and a pressure to rise to the top in increasingly competitive fields. “It’s important to merge creativity and recreation because they feed into each other,” explains Sarah Carlson. “Creative blocks are challenging, and it’s important to take a breather and step outside of your work zone to recharge,” adds Cherie.

By getting outside solo, or with groups like Outdoor Studio, you’re fueling your creativity, networking with like-minded people and adding a transitionary layer to your personal practice and artistic work flow.

2. Make it part of your process

“If recreation is defined as what we do when we’re not working, then we absolutely need recreation to fuel our work,” says Cherie. For Outdoor Studio’s artist mentor, Sarah Carlson, recharging outdoors is central to prepping for her next big project or exhibition. She frequents artist residencies in highly natural settings such as Algonquin Park and the Yukon.

3. Tap in to your senses

“I find clouds have such personality, they have this pulsing liveliness, and sometimes they really open up for you,” says Jessa. “I usually look far in the distance so I can see everything.” Here, she details more of her thought process when she’s in making-mode:

4. Streamline your pack list

No matter what you’re doing out in the wild, some practical items should be a given: a sturdy pack with a rain cover, a hydration bladder (your cap can be helpful with watercolours), a headlamp if you want to keep at it after dusk, and a warm jacket like the MEC Spicy Hoodie or Commix Hoodie.

Carry a sketchbook (you can even get waterproof ones), a couple of pens and a pencil (in the winter your ink may freeze). If drawing isn’t your jam, then bring any materials that allow you to explore and make in the wild. Outdoor Studio suggests watercolours, pastels, carving tools and a camera.

Watercolour set

“I bring a what is basically a travel pouch with a couple brushes, pens, a pencil, a couple sketchbooks and a disposable film camera,” says Jessa. “Plus secret items like sparklers to mix it up and keep things light.” She also recommends making sure your watercolour set is non-toxic (acrylics are not compatible with Mother Nature), using a mechanical pencil so you don’t have to worry about a sharpener, and grabbing a Moleskine notebook for dry days. “The elastic band keeps the notebook closed and the pouch in the back can hold small drawings,” she says.

5. Get ready to learn

“[Being outside] has taught me to be grateful for the environment I live in,” says Jessa. “Sitting there and really being patient and taking the time to actually look. So often we interpret things through our smartphones and devices – we’re just snapping an image and moving on, and I think its important slow things down, appreciate what’s around you and just wait. See what the clouds do, see how the colours change, think about how the environment feels and affects you. It’s also great for keeping your hand-eye coordination going.”

6. Leave your insecurities at the door

Don’t worry about making things perfect. Everybody was an amateur at some point in their life, but it’s through the struggle of making that you find change and growth.

“When people say ‘I can’t paint’ or ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I don’t know how to look at art,’ – it’s really just about letting go,” explains Jessa. “The way you experience and interpret it is totally authentic. It’s not about how you relate to anyone else’s skill or what’s good or bad. If you’re out there and you want to be creative, you should just do it. There’s no reason not to.”

She adds that it’s important to acknowledge that you even have the opportunity to be creative. “It’s freeing to just try to play. Doodle and have some fun; keep it light. You don’t start out creating masterpieces, you start small and build.”

Kim Budziak

Wordsmith, avid skier and rookie road biker. Firmly believes the best days are the snowiest ones.