Painting the Trail: An Interview with Neil Sherman
Sherman is an award-winning plein air painter living in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and is well-known for his scenes of Northern Minnesota. He has already completed about 94 miles of the trail since he began this unusual project in 2011, and he’s looking forward to several more seasons of painting, in summer and winter.
“Last winter I only did one day trip, but this year I’ll try to do a winter overnight trip,” said Sherman. “This summer I’ll go on the trail every other week. I don’t think I’ll finish the entire trail this summer—I’ll probably go into next year before I finish it all.”
How does an artist tackle such an ambitious project?
Sherman hikes a section at a time, making two-day trips. “The trails are between six and eight miles long—the longest is about 11 miles. So it makes sense to camp overnight,” he said.
“I hike into the interior a little further than the average painter might go, maybe a couple of miles, then I start looking for things that strike me as interesting. For example, I was on the trail a couple of weeks ago and came across something that’s typical of these hiking trails—a boardwalk that goes through a boggy area. It just caught my eye—the planks going at different angles, the reflected light, lots of rich, bright greens. I try to look for things that are characteristic of these hiking trails.”
While most of his trips are across interior trails, Sherman occasionally changes direction. “I did something a little different the other day,” he said. “The trail starts south of Duluth and then goes right through Duluth itself, so I did a couple of sections in Duluth. I did one street scene that was along the trail and also a painting of the harbor. That was a nice change of pace.”
Sherman has also made some changes to how he works and the equipment he carries. “Last year,” he said, “I just carried my pochade box and a stool, and held the paint box on my lap. But it was hard to stand up and step back to look at the painting. This year I rigged the pochade box to a tripod.”
“I also limited the number of paints last year, so as not to add extra weight. But when I actually weighed them, the tubes were so light that it wasn’t worth leaving out colors that I like using. Now, I carry pretty much my full complement of colors, which is around 11-12 different colors.”
Like all plein air painters, Sherman has to deal with changing light and unpredictable weather. He prefers days that are gray and overcast so he can focus on shapes and colors. “I really enjoy and thrive on those kinds of days,” he said. “The color tones are really subtle and I like that. There’s a subtlety in the different colors of gray—getting variety in the colors and values of gray is important.”
Camping adds its own challenges to outdoor painting. “I wish I were more of a morning person and could get up early,” said Sherman, “because early morning and late evenings are the best times to paint—the light is really low and kind of dramatic. I like those times, but when I’m camping I don’t sleep well, and I tend to sleep in more. I try to get a painting done in the morning, and one in the afternoon, and maybe one in the evening. That’s the ideal—it doesn’t often work out, but when it happens, that’s a good painting day.”
Sherman explained that the idea of painting the Superior Hiking Trail was not simply to document the trail, but to make people aware of its beauty. He’s also intrigued by the idea of doing something different, “painting scenes that most people can’t get at because they’re limited in time, and they don’t want to drag their equipment that far and mess with all the details of camping. It allows me to get into places that are a little more remote.”
This project will capture areas of the Superior Hiking Trail that have never before been painted, and will show the North Shore in a variety of lighting, colors and moods. Sherman expects to have about 50 paintings by the time he’s hiked the final mile.
What does he plan to do with these unique works?
“I’d like to do a show of all the paintings, and I’d also like to do some larger studio pieces from some of them. For these, I’ll stick to the original feeling that’s in the smaller study, but they’ll probably have more detail. And hopefully the larger pieces will have more impact—if you can reproduce the feeling of the small painting on a bigger scale it can be a powerful thing.”