Creativity and Plein Air Painting – Oaxaca, Mexico

This past January (2022) I signed up for a creativity retreat in Oaxaca, Mexico.  I had postponed twice -and finally cancelled – a month-long trip to Italy, which had been booked since 2020, and was just ready to go somewhere new and exotic.  I don’t even remember how I happened upon this particular retreat, but one day there it was, and I thought about it for only a hot minute before signing up.  The agenda included early yoga and meditation, followed by breakfast and creativity exercises in the morning hours.  After lunch we had siesta and free time, then in the evenings we went out on the streets to catch the light and paint in plein air. For two of the seven days we had tours of a weaving village and the village where they carve and paint the Alebrijes. 

Now… I am typically not out there anywhere plein air painting.  I like my controlled and well-equipped studio environment.  However, the artist child in me continues to insist that I AM a plein air painter.  After all, I own all the right gear.  So here I go, all alone, off to Oaxaca for a seven-day plein air and creativity retreat.  Actually, I was alone only from the Corpus Christi, Texas to Dallas, Texas leg of the flight.  I met up with two other participants in Dallas and we arrived in Oaxaca on the same flight, had dinner and became acquainted.

I’m not going to go into the creativity exercises here, nor the yoga on the rooftop at sunrise on a hand-woven grass mat. (I can still smell that mat.)  But here is my plein air experience. 

Let’s start with THE GEAR.

Closed pastel box with notice on lid.
Here is the outside of my Heilman Backpack pastel box. I have travelled on planes with this one before, so it was already set up with the informational sheets inside and out. I did, however, clean up the pastels and re-stock.
Open pastel box.
Here is the inside of the box with photos of what is underneath the protective coverings.
Backpack, pastel box, tripod, sketchbook and camera laid out on the floor.
Here is my basic backpack gear for plein air. The easel is the one that Heilman sells to go with its boxes. My tripod is in the black Sirui bag. I have a sketchbook, viewfinder, my camera (which became redundant due to the excellent quality of the iPhone 13 pro photographs), some pencils and pens.
Close up of tripod make and model.
Carbon Fiber tripod. Weighs just about 2 pounds. Because I know you’re going to ask…
Backpack ready to go.
Here it is all packed up. Weighing in at just under 21 pounds.
Outdoor landscape.

This is the location for our first plein air outing.  We did not set up immediately.  Sometimes you have to “be” in a place for some minutes to get a feel for what you want to capture.  It was the late afternoon after our tour of the weavings in Teotitlan del Valle. We were tired.  There is a lot to unpack here in this scene, and I am not good at leaving things behind (or out).  But here I am all set up and giving it a go.

Easel with painting, working outdoors.

The next morning, we left early for the Jalatlaco neighborhood, a secret gem, to paint the papel picado streets.  Johanna brought us hot coffees and the very best almond croissants from Boulenc. 

Suburban Mexican street, with bright colour houses and flags stretched across the street.

I struggled with this.  The paper I’m using is La Carte terracotta and I’ve let quite a bit of the paper show. I like that about La Carte.

I consider this a field sketch and not a finished piece.  The purpose is to capture the excitement of the experience. 

I was unhappy with this as I was painting it.  However, looking at it now, I see that it is fresh and loose – OH! And SOLD!!

Creativity and Plein Air Painting – Oaxaca, Mexico 1

We liked the Jalatlaco neighborhood so much that several of us went back the next morning.

Large leafless tree infront of large stone building.

Again, a field sketch to capture color, intensity and feeling. 

Painting of the dark tree trunk against golden background.
Busy evening in a Mexican town square.

On another evening, we went over to the Zocalo, the main plaza where the Cathedral dominates and people gather to listen to music, dine, sell their wares and people watch.  There were about 6 of us that night.  As we set up, we were almost immediately surrounded by people of all ages.  We even had police officers come and ask us about our art and wanting to know where we were from.  While painting with someone watching over your shoulder can be a bit daunting – o.k. – TERRIFYING – it was an experience I will not forget.

I share this next sketch with some trepidation, because as you can see, I absolutely did NOT capture the scene very accurately! But I had a great time talking to people and showing them my supplies. 

Painting of the Mexican street scene.
Small children enjoy painting on the street.
This is what happens when you plein air paint in Oaxaca and give children some nupastels, charcoal and paper to play with.

The point of this blog is to share the beauty of Oaxaca and encourage you to get out there.  Go outside your comfort zone.  When you go outside the comfort zone, you are in the learning and growth zone.  There is another zone past that one –  that is the panic zone – and I can tell you I was in the panic zone, more often than not, whenever I set up my easel en plein air in Oaxaca. But WOW.  Just look at the rewards. 

Because we need to support each other, I’m going to give a shout-out here to the artist who led the workshop, Amanda Houston at, together with her local (Oaxaca) assistant, Johanna.  I hear she may be planning the Oaxaca reunion in 2023!  You can bet I’ll be there.

Neva Smoll leaning against a large rustic doorway.
Neva Smoll on the Streets of Oaxaca. Photo courtesy of Rick Smoll

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4 Responses

  1. Dear Neva,
    Loved your post! I use a backpack sized Hellman too, was wondering how you like the easel insert? I’m always wanting to tilt it(bend it somehow)! I have yet to go anywhere exotic to paint with my gear…it’s on my to-do list now! I live and paint in Kauai, Hawaii, come visit and we’ll paint together!
    Helen Turner

    1. Hi Helen, thank you for reading and commenting! I have to say I have never found myself wanting to bend the easel insert. LOL. What I HAVE found is that I am annoyed by pastel dust falling from my painting (on the easel) onto my pastels in the box. Just a small annoyance, though.

      I’ve been to other Hawaiian islands, but never Kauai. I know I would love it. Thank you for the invite.

      Regards, Neva

  2. I love your artist’s series. Neva’s story was exceptionally interesting and fun. I appreciate all the photos she shared. Very helpful for learing how to travel as compactly as possible. Thank you and do thank her for me.

    1. Susan,

      Thank you for your comments. It is always nice to hear good things! As for being compact, the struggle is real. I tend to bring way too much. Even with the limited items I did bring on that trip, there were things I didn’t use. I always bring too much paper, in hopes that it will somehow make me more productive.

      Thanks again and best regards,

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