Plein Air on the Waterfront: A 4-Day workshop with Qiang Huang

The Tallapoosa School of Art is an all-inclusive artists’ retreat. Workshops include all classes, all meals, lodging in the Blue Heron with its private lakefront rooms, and transportation to all painting sites on our 24-foot Crest II pontoon boat, “Miss Charlotte.”

During the first week of May, 2017, the Tallapoosa School of Art welcomed our first teaching artist,  Qiang Huang (pronounced Chong Wong), a signature member of the Oil Painters of America. Qiang is a daily painter from Austin, Texas, whose workshops are in demand across the globe. He came to us from the national plein air conference in San Diego, and was scheduled for a ten-day teaching tour of Italy when he left us. Qiang was exhausted when he joined us early Monday evening. But he was soon better. As he wrote the day after our workshop concluded:

"Returned from San Diego, I stay at home only one day before I started another teaching trip. This stop was Lake Martin near Auburn, Alabama. Staying at the side of this beautiful lake my fatigue due to heavy traveling was gone just like that. I want to thank Dorothy and George Littleton for organizing this workshop and thanks to all the artists for attending. This is my first demo, which is a plein air piece." - Qiang Huang

"Returned from San Diego, I stay at home only one day before I started another teaching trip. This stop was Lake Martin near Auburn, Alabama. Staying at the side of this beautiful lake my fatigue due to heavy traveling was gone just like that. I want to thank Dorothy and George Littleton for organizing this workshop and thanks to all the artists for attending. This is my first demo, which is a plein air piece." - Qiang Huang

WORKSHOP: DAY ONE

We began this quiet May morning with breakfast on the Blue Heron porch. We then gathered on the dock where Qiang painted his first demo while thoughtfully and intuitively explaining not only how he creates his paintings, but also how we must think and feel as painters.

He also shared vignettes from his own fascinating life, which began in Bejing, where he knew early on that he wanted to paint. But he could not pursue his dream in that time and place, and instead earned a Ph.D in physics and began his career in optical engineering in the U.S. He continued to study art and attend workshops, and finally came to a crossroads. As he explained to us:

Obviously working in industry the money is better. But then there is not as much time. And time is much more valuable than money.
— Huang

For the past ten years he has been committed to his “painterly” life, and all of the artists attending this workshop were gladdened and inspired by his pure presence. In the words of one of our workshop artists, Lisa Lett Bentley, “Qiang is like a combination of Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Dali Lama. He seamlessly blends that kind of spirituality, intelligence, vision, and talent. He is one of the very best teachers I have ever met.”

After lunch (sandwiches, chips, and tea catered by Poplar Dawgs), our artists returned to the waterfront as Qiang explained how the light had changed and suggested ways we could respond to it. We spent the afternoon under his encouraging guidance, working on our own efforts, with many artists drawn to our red canoe tethered to a nearby mooring buoy. Qiang himself would paint this canoe as part of his demonstrations.

After freshening up from our May Day on the dock, we boarded the “Miss Charlotte” and made the twilight cruise to the lakeside home of Chef Brad Copeland and his talented artist wife Pamela Wesley Copeland for a most memorable meal. Just back from an extended tour of the Italian countryside, where he studied both wines and desserts, Brad put on a show.

Gathered in the Copelands’ lakeside dining area, we began with asumptuous salad before moving on to courses of fresh-baked bread, oven-baked rice (his grandmother’s recipe), grilled asparagus, and a Beef Tenderloin hot off the grill.  The tenderloin was prepared so that no matter what temperature you preferred, Brad was able to please. Naturally, we finished up with a fantastic dessert – locally-picked strawberries and creamy dreams in a pie crust. That’s the best way I can describe it! Needless to say, all of our artists slept well in the Blue Heron that night, anticipating the day ahead.


WORKSHOP: DAY TWO

After breakfast on the porch, George loaded easels, side tables, coolers, and paint bags for a refreshing morning cruise to the most coveted invitation on Lake Martin’s 800 miles of shoreline: Jim Scott’s gardens and waterfalls. There are plenty of places online where you can see this amazing attraction, but it’s not the same as being there.

Wandering through the gardens, Qiang soon settled on a stone archway in an open space surrounded by hydrangea blooms for his morning demo. Emphasizing fine points of perspective, vanishing point, and ways to “measure” what you plan to paint, his demo was spectacular.

After a hot catered lunch from Louie’s in Walnut Hill, we went back to work, but this time each to his own spot in the 15-acre paradise. Qiang spent time helping each of his students focus on their subject, as it is easy to be overwhelmed in such a setting. 

A real highlight of the day was a visit from Jim Scott himself, master of this labor of love and designer of the gardens, though as usual he could easily have been mistaken for one of the gardeners. Qiang enjoyed a tour with Jim, where they shared their ideas on truth and beauty. While Qiang’s way may be in his love of teaching and talent on the canvas, Jim’s may be summed up in his prominent stone bench engraving from Shakespeare:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
— William Shakespeare

It was all around us, all through the day. And this was plein air painting at its finest.

After boating back to the Blue Heron for a rest and a drink, it was on to the boat and across the lake for a repeat performance by Chef Brad and Pam. Yes, the dishes were different, but the effect was the same. The salad was spectacular. The French Chocolate Pie was perfect. The grilled roasts were great. More laughter. Then home for restful sleep, feeling the art spirit among us.


WORKSHOP: DAY THREE

Our plan was to boat to a marina for a day of painting sailboats, but the blue sky turned grey and Qiang elected to retreat to my north-facing studio, which comfortably accommodated all ten of our guests. It gave Qiang a terrific teaching platform where he incorporated his pinpoint technology and mastery of programs used to manipulate photographs to become inviting plein air subjects. 

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At noon, we enjoyed a picnic lunch of fried chicken and salads with the sound of a gentle rain on the metal roof of the studio. Then back to work, completing our paintings with Qiang’s encouraging advice.

For our last evening together, we had planned a pontoon boat ride to Bay Point Marina for their very popular Thursday night catfish dinner, but the weather did not cooperate. We opted instead for Lake Martin Pizza Company on the big screened porch of the Blue Heron, where we shared our best memories of the day and the painting journeys that have brought us together in this enchanted place. Qiang shared more of his own art journey with us, always humble and intuitive in his suggestions. 

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WORKSHOP: DAY FOUR

We spent our final day in the studio painting along with Qiang from a photo taken in Jim Scott’s gardens. Qiang’s advice of the day was not allowing ego – our enemy – to come between the painter and the painting. 

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Final Thoughts...

It was over too soon, but the inspiration will linger. Thanks more than I can say to John & Glenna, Renee, Cassie, Gail, Linda, Kris, Lisa, Steve, and Merrilyn for being our first artists at the Tallapoosa School of Art and the Blue Heron. Thanks to Jim Scott, and to Brad and Pam. Thanks especially to Qiang Huang, a great painter and inspiring teacher who has brought out the best in all of us as we continue traveling on our individual art journeys. I have to think Qiang likes us, too. He has agreed to return and teach a studio still life course in 2019. I hope to see you there.

Peace, Dorothy.