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The Great Plains

by Jean McGuire in Thoughts on Painting
The Great Plains by Jean McGuire, Oil on Canvas, 20 x 24 inches ©2015

I have said many times before that picking a favorite painting is like picking your favorite child. Since I always used to try and sweet-talk my daughters into doing favors for me by telling them they were my favorite, this statement has caused much amusement among my kids. Despite all the jokes within my family, I do not have a favorite child; but today I have been gazing at what I have to tell you is my favorite painting.

Last September, my cousin Kristin posted a group of photographs she had taken at Konza Prairie Natural Area on Facebook. As a native of Kansas, the pictures of the rolling prairie with the waving tall grass spoke to me. One in particular struck me; it showed all the beautiful colors that are hidden in the Kansas Plains. If you were to just drive by you may or may not notice all the flowers tucked in among the tall grasses.

Kansas has a reputation of being a flat state with a never changing, drab landscape. I know better and have always loved the rolling hills and unexpected bursts of color. Yes, Kansas has hills. As a former runner, I can guarantee you how much I cursed every time I ran a course that was advertised as being “pancake flat.”

Photo by Kristin Van Tassel

I knew I had to try and capture the beauty of the photograph. I immediately wrote Kristin and asked her permission to work from it. She graciously gave her consent and I was soon attempting to capture what the photograph sparked in me.

You see, up to that point, I had been painting in a pretty straight-forward manner. Paintings may have taken a while to complete, but they weren’t very complicated. Color went down and I definitely worked in sequence so the foreground was done last, but I hadn’t really layered my colors. This painting was my first serious attempt at the layering of colors that tests my patience so severely.

Anyone who has known me longer than 5 minutes can tell you I am not a patient person. I may take weeks to make a decision or formulate a plan, but once I’ve made up my mind, I want instant gratification. Working in patient layers is not a natural state for me, but I knew this painting deserved that focus and attention.

So I started. I patiently would put down a layer of colors I liked and then walk away to let that layer dry. When working with oil paint, the drying process is not a quick one, so it would usually be a week before I would go back to the easel. Once a layer was dry, I’d go over that layer with more colors, letting some, but not all of the original layer stay visible.

In addition to working with layers for the first time, I was also using a brush more than usual. There was no way I could get the details of the grasses using just my finger. I cannot tell you how many layers of color were painstakingly applied to each and every blade of grass in that painting. When I did use the brush, I worked with a cosmetic eye-liner brush so I could better control where the paint and colors went.

Once I was done, this was one of the rare paintings I really liked. Usually, an artist can see where they weren’t able to accomplish exactly what they saw in their mind and can only focus on those flaws. Even though this painting definitely has areas that aren’t exactly how I saw them, the overall effect was exactly what I wanted to accomplish.

I finished the painting in mid-November and went on to paint many, many more paintings. Some of those I like, some of them, not so much. Each and every time I face a blank canvas I am trying to push myself forward and explore different views and emotions. Even the paintings I don’t like have merit because they pushed me out of my comfort zone. But, like many artists, I have a studio full of painted canvases that are stacked up against the wall. When I have a show I pull out the ones that fit that particular occasion and hope that people enjoy my work, and maybe even buy one. Once the show is done, the paintings go back into the studio, staying there until the next time I’m invited to exhibit.

I have recently decided I am going to start hanging more of my work in my home. I have tried various methods of hanging them so I can have some flexibility in changing up what’s on my walls. On a whim, I decided to put this painting, The Great Plains, up in my kitchen.

I know we have been taught not to brag about things we’ve done, but I no longer agree with that philosophy, and I love this painting. I think I would stop and stare at it if I walked by another artist’s exhibit and saw it hanging. From what many describe as a boring prairie is a feast of color and movement that just makes me happy.

When other people are looking at my work and choosing their favorites, this painting is rarely mentioned. That’s okay. I love it and a year after painting it, I still stop and just look at all the details every time I walk by it. The unexpected sapphire, ruby, and amethyst among the waving grasses still sing to me just as much as the first time I saw my cousin’s photograph. Thank you, Kristin, for the inspiration.

The other good news is at least now there’s something in the kitchen that makes me want to go in there.

(Originally posted on, September 2016.)

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