Updated: Sep 20, 2022
As a plein air painter who creates both day and night scenes, the one question I'm asked more than any other is whether or not it's safe for me to paint outside at night. I always think that's an interesting question for many reasons (it delves into gender, the human psyche, the negative associations our society has attached to darkness, the evolutionary imprint of fear) but I also think it's interesting because many people seem to assume that painting during the day is safe, and some are very surprised to hear that the only time I've actually ever felt unsafe was during the day. Here's that story-
It was early fall, and I was driving past some fields on a farm road when I was struck by the intense orange color of the grassy cover crop. Instantly I knew I wanted to paint the scene, so I parked my car and set up in the field about 15 yards from the road. Although there's really nothing on this section of road but fields, during the day it gets a fair amount of traffic (a car or cars every 5-10 minutes) because it's a convenient shortcut between two busier streets that sometimes have traffic backups. It's also popular with road bicyclists because it's a long, straight, paved road with light traffic.
When I'm out painting, whether it's day or night, there are two things I always do- let my "safety contact" know my location, and stay aware of my surroundings. In this instance my back was to the road, but I could catch movement in my peripheral vision, so whenever I saw movement from a car or bicyclist I would glance over my shoulder and note what or who was going by. So when a van that had already gone by me once drove slowly past me again, I recognized it. When I saw that the van turned around and crept by yet again from the other direction it had my attention. It's not easy to turn around on this road, and while the driver could be doing anything (including just trying to get a better look at my painting) that behavior was unusual, and it sent up a small red flag.
Ten minutes later when I saw the same van slowly driving towards me for a fourth pass I stopped what I was doing and paid very close attention as it went by. I was hoping this time the driver would just keep going and not turn around again, but no such luck, a moment later I spotted the van coming from the other direction again. At this point the van was going impossibly slow, in my head I began silently chanting "keep driving, keep driving" as I watched the van creep by. It had barely past me when it pulled over on the opposite side of the road, my stomach dropped, my pulse quickened, and my silent chant changed to "don't get out, don't get out" while I took my phone out. I quickly texted a description of the van to my safety contact, then watched as a man got out of the van and crossed the street. I was able to text a quick description of him too, but then felt I needed to pay attention to everything so I stopped texting, but held onto my phone tightly in my hand.
I'm glad I was paying attention because as I watched him approach he did something I'm very glad I saw because it would prove to be important. He'd only taken a few steps into the field when he heard a car coming. He looked back towards the approaching vehicle, then turned around and walked away from me as the car past. He paused in the road and as soon as the car was gone he turned back around and started towards me again. The fact that he didn't appear to want anyone to see him near me made my internal alarms scream. As he approached I turned completely around so that I was facing him, squared my shoulders, and in my best- cool but authoritative voice- said "hello". I wanted him to stop walking towards me, and acknowledging him stopped his progression while he was a still a little further from me than a normal speaking distance. I kept my face unfriendly, whether or not this human meant me harm was irrelevant, there was enough going on to make me uncomfortable so I needed to make it clear that he was an unwelcome interruption.
He spoke to me in another language, and to this day I don't know why my first impression was that what he spoke either wasn't actually his first language, or that he could speak English but was using a communication barrier as a way to create confusion, but that was my thought. In response I shook my head to indicate that I didn't understand. He took a step towards me, and I took a step back, wanting to maintain the distance between us. I also got closer to my gear, I wanted something between us that I could use as a barrier or diversion should the worst case scenario start to play out. He put his hands out in front of him making a calm down gesture and said "relax, relax." Instead I tensed my posture and squared up even more. In response I said "yes, painting (nodding towards my easel) is relaxing and now I'd like to get back to it" and stared at him straight in the eye. Again I got the distinct impression he understood everything I said, and in hindsight it seemed unusual that he would know the word "relax" but not "hello".
Watching him approach and noticing how skittish he was about being seen was ultimately the thing that made him leave. As we stood in the field starting at each other I noticed a bicyclist that had past me earlier riding back towards us. Before my visitor noticed him I stuck my arm up and waved at the biker like he was an old friend. The man in the field was surprised and quickly turned to see who was there. I was hoping the biker might sense something wasn't quite right and stop, or at least wave back, but he was focused on his ride and peddled by. Fortunately the wave alone was enough to scare my visitor off. He turned and quickly made his way back to his vehicle, driving off a lot faster than before.
The whole encounter took no more than a few minutes. I was certainly glad the biker happened by when he did. Given how jumpy the man was, he probably would have left if I'd dialed my phone or had gotten a call from my safety contact, but you never know. I sent my safety contact a text saying that everything was o.k., and continued painting. I kept an eye out for the van and if I had seen it again, I wouldn't have hesitated to go to my car or dial for help before he could approach me again.
I don't tell this story with the intention of scaring anyone away from plein air painting. This incident happened several years ago and I've continued to plein air paint, and in the close to a decade that I've been working outside, this is the only unsettling encounter I've ever had. I tell this story to emphasize that you need a safety plan.
Bring a phone, make sure it's charged, that you have service in your location, and keep it on you- not in your bag.
Let someone know exactly where you are. Be specific, don't just say you're "at the park", say exactly where in the park you're located.
Talk with your painting partner(s) or safety contact about what to do if trouble comes up.
Consider your location- How close are you to your car? How close are you to the side of the road? Can people approach without you noticing? I was glad this man had to walk into the field to get near me, I would have felt a lot less safe if I'd been closer to the road and his vehicle.
While painting, pay attention to your surroundings.
Have a plan of action about what you'll do should you feel uncomfortable or need to defend yourself.
Most of all- trust your instincts. You don't owe anyone your time or politeness. If they are making you uncomfortable (regardless of their intentions) make it clear that they aren't welcome in your space.
Thinking about these things doesn't mean you need to paint from a place of fear, in fact it's just the opposite- there's power in preparedness. Having a plan can help you feel safer when you're out, and might help you react quicker should an unpleasant situation arise.
I hope you got something useful from this story, if you have any other safety tips or have had an experience you'd like to share please leave a comment.