I grew up watching the original Star Trek series. Every night after dinner I'd sit down to "explore new worlds and seek out new civilizations." The special effects back then may have been rudimentary, but they were sufficient to teleport me into other worlds and galaxies.
Beyond the phasers and teleportation machine used to "beam" people to and from planets, there were two other devices that my friends and I thought were cool. The "communicator" and "tri-corder." Captain Kirk was always fiddling with his communicator settings, trying to get it to work from one crisis to another. And Mr. Spock always had his tri-corder, to evaluate the weather, get directions and survey conditions on the ground.
Little did I know back in the 1970's that within my lifetime we'd develop a device that's both a communicator and tri-corder. Of course, I'm talking about the iPhone and related smart phones.
My iPhone allows me to communicate wirelessly with anyone I want to, anywhere. And just like a tri-corder, it can measure my exercise patterns, provide directions and forecast the weather. Best of all, it has a camera and video function built in.
For artists, this capability is invaluable to take photos of the landscape and your travels. And while taking photos is useful for future reference back in the studio, I'd like to suggest you shut off your phone and go old school.
A few years back my wife and I took a lovely road trip up north into Canada. We visited Banff, Whistler, Butchart Gardens in British Columbia and the Okanagan wine region and resort at Inkameep.
From our hotel balcony I was tempted to take a photo of the afternoon sun on the valley and mountains beyond. But then I decided to quickly set up my small pochade box and tripod. The weather was perfect and my wife set a cool glass of sauvignon blanc beside me. What more could a plein air artist ask for?
In about an hour I produced the small oil sketch above of the Okanagan valley. Even now when I view it, I'm taken back to that day and moment. More so than a photograph. There's simply something more intimate and connected with a plein air sketch. As an artist, you're often able to better capture local color. And through your senses, the sketch may capture a better sense of place than a photo.
I painted both of the Idaho pieces in this article while on location. I could show you my iPhone photos of these areas, but they don't capture the color and feeling quite the same way. By pushing colors just a bit and rearranging a few things, the result better captures the sense of place.
There's no question that photos have their place and can be useful reference to remember the architecture of a scene. But if you want to create better oil paintings, do more quick sketches. You'll learn to compose faster and eliminate unnecessary information.
As your facility in painting grows, you'll also find that you're starting to capture the sense of place more. If you don't have your paints with you, keep a small sketch book. Sketching will greatly accelerate your artistic growth. I wrote more about that here.
If you're not a painter, I would offer parallel advice to work more from life. The phenomenal sculptor Mark Edward Adams often works directly from life. It's how he captures the feeling and truth of his subjects. And of course, there are many professional photographers who take thousands of outdoor pictures, to learn more about color, design and various effects.
But for the painters among you, get yourself a small, portable pochade box and dive in. Those small oil paintings will enhance your ability and better capture the places you visit!