The sun rises on a bluebird summer day in Summit County as a trio of painters strike out from a trailhead, bundles of easels, paints and brushes in tow. After a few hours of searching, they discover a vantage point overlooking an alpine meadow, full of lush wildflowers framed by stoic peaks and stately pines.
They clamber to set up painting stations as the sun creeps across the sky, bringing with it subtle changes to light and shadow. Not more than 30 minutes into their painting session, clouds begin to roll in and the first raindrops begin to fall. With a few quiet sighs, the painters pack up their belongings and trundle back to the trailhead. Such is the life of a plein air painter, subject to the whims of Mother Nature and the unpredictable landscapes of the High Country.
A whole set of challenges
Plein air sketching and painting have become wildly popular in Colorado in the past few years, giving rise to dedicated events and workshops and even publications for those who wish to pursue the art.
“‘Plein air’ is a French term meaning ‘open air,’” local artist Marianna Duford said. “Historically, artists had to grind and mix their own paints. When premixed oil paints, along with portable easels, became available in the late 1800s, it became possible to take their studios into the great outdoors.”
Duford said painting en plein air is the best way to capture the effect of natural light and atmosphere on color and how light and shadow affect the forms we’re looking at. She starts by finding something of interest she wants to paint — the way the light creates shadows on trees or caresses a mountain peak behind them. Capturing the intensity of light tests an artist every time out with each brush stroke, Duford said.
“Today would have been a very big challenge,” artist Amy Evans said on a day in April when the snow was swirling and the sun intermittently peeking through the overcast sky. “I think one of the biggest challenges is wind. It’s one of the things plein air artists don’t like, when the wind is blowing and they’re hanging on for dear life.”
The weather can change rapidly, especially up here in the mountains, Evans said, and the equipment needs to be simple and lightweight; otherwise, you spend so much time setting up that the atmosphere of the space has changed and you’ve lost the light.
“The challenge is, too, if you are hiking back a ways and having everything pretty lightweight but being able to, if the wind comes up, you have to make sure your equipment is not going to blow off,” Evans said.
The contrast of light and shadow on a sunny day creates a whole new set of problems, Duford said, and finding places that speak to you can also be a difficult task.
“You have to work rapidly, especially on sunny days, because the light moves and the shadows change,” Evans said. “There’s so much out there; you have to look at the scene and discern what is important. Painting is about what you distill from the landscape, what’s important to you.
“It’s a challenge to keep your focus on what your intent is and not change it every time the wind changes and the light changes. All those things factor into making it difficult.”
Why en plein air?
The attraction of plein air painting is different for each artist. Duford said she paints en plein air because she loves vibrant color and she strives to maintain values of light and shadow while still honoring her colorist style.
“I love the challenge of creating an entire painting in one session, having to make the calls of composition and colors Johnny on the spot,” Duford said.
An instructor once told Duford that if what she painted didn’t touch emotions, it was just wallpaper. Duford said she captures a moment in time that brings emotional recognition to the view, and just taking a photograph and painting from that would never allow a painter to reach a deeper emotional level with the work.
“I love how the act of observing and creating a painting cements the memory in my mind,” Duford said. “I can access the feelings, smells, sounds and visuals of the whole thing.”
Rather than always creating an entire painting in one sitting, Evans often uses her plein air paintings as studies for larger studio pieces.
“I have a photo reference, I have a sketch reference and I have the painting, so I have a lot of information to work from,” she said. “It’s important for me to gain knowledge and material about the landscape. I love being out in nature anyway, and things just happen a lot of times when you’re painting that you’d miss if you weren’t totally absorbed in it.”
Evans said a typical session of plein air painting lasts about two hours because after that, the light begins to change.
“It forces me to not to be too analytical about what I paint,” she said. “It forces me to study light, study shadows and that’s what my paintings are about — the light and the effect of it on subject matter. I think, too, you get the feeling of the place you paint when you’re out there. When I look at a painting that I’ve done on location, I can remember what the day was like, I can remember what the type of light was like, what the weather was like. You never know what you’re going to encounter. It’s an adventure.”
Wild About Colorado fest
The Wild About Colorado Art & Outdoor Festival, taking place Thursday, July 17, through Saturday, July 19, in Breckenridge, gives plein air artists the opportunity to give back to the landscapes that inspire them. The event is a fundraiser for the Continental Divide Land Trust, and proceeds from the sale of paintings and fees charged for workshops and other activities help make it the organization’s largest fundraising event of the year.
Leigh Girvin, executive director of the Continental Divide Land Trust, said the relationship between plein air painting and land conservation is a natural one.
“It’s really quite simple,” she said. “Landscape artists need landscapes to paint. … That’s the connection between our work in land conservation and plein air painting.”
Activities begin Thursday morning with a wildflower hike to Wakefield Meadow, where participating artists will demonstrate their skills en plein air.
“Folks can come and enjoy a moderate hike and then have some time to watch the artists paint,” Girvin said. “They can see what the artists painted, what they were looking at and what they created on their canvas; it’s really a thrilling process to watch.”
Throughout the weekend, featured artists will be painting in locations around the county. The public is invited to stop by the festival’s base camp at Carter Park in Breckenridge each day to find out where the artists will be painting. Other events include a sold-out birding tour, wildlife photography workshop and a wild edible plants hike.
Girvin said funds from the festival help the Land Trust protect the landscape for everyone to enjoy, but it’s the artists who interpret and help inform our consciousness of natural lands, providing another link to the wild places of our communities.
“Why do people come here?” Girvin said. “What is the heart of our ecomony? It’s the natural beauty, and that’s what CLDT helps protect.”