Some of my life’s most satisfying moments – both creatively and spiritually – have occurred while I’ve been painting alone in the mountains. The incandescent moments are rare. Plein air painting can be physically demanding and full of frustration. My plein air adventures usually include fighting the wind, or trying not to get fried by the high altitude sun, or eaten by insects. Or trying to avoid hypothermia as the temperamental mountain weather plunges, or stay hydrated when it rises. Many times I’ve finally been forced to shut the easel and wait out a rain, hail, graupel, or snow storm. I’m not complaining. This is what I signed up for when I moved to Colorado 11 years ago to become a plein air painter. I’m just describing how it is.
When I’m at an exhibit with my fellow painters, and we’re all cleaned up and dry and eating appetizers in an air-conditioned art gallery, it must seem to our friendly patrons that we’ve been out playing all week!
“Plein air” is French for “open air”. Plein air painting has become something of an American art movement over the past couple of decades with plein air festivals popping up all over the country. I first learned about plein air painting during my 10 year stint working at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri. Hallmark had a wonderful library on site, staffed by some smart ladies who purchased the coolest books having to do with the arts and creativity. I spent a lot of time there and eventually stumbled across the movement. I soon identified some favorite painters, whose work I looked forward to seeing in the magazines, foremost among them being Matt Smith.
From time to time Hallmark would reward their artists with “creative renewal” trips. One year I was selected to go on week long trip with five other guys to a cabin in the Conejos region in the Colorado Rockies, near the New Mexico border. I have loved the Colorado landscape since childhood. Our family used to vacation there every summer at my mom’s cousin’s working ranch in Canon City when I was a boy. Everything about those vacations was magical for me, but I was a kid then, and had not yet begun to think about painting.
This Hallmark trip would be my first chance to try my hand at plein air painting in the landscape I loved, and I was stoked. When the time came, just being out in that landscape again was wonderful in itself. I lugged my gear out into the mountains, not really knowing what I was doing, and my first couple of attempts were pretty fruitless. But then one evening I had the first of those transcendent painting experiences. I was standing on a high bluff, which had taken some doing to get to with my gear. I had already been rained on and submerged in fog, and was wondering if I was wasting my time. Eventually I was able to start up again, and I got lost in my painting. It was late afternoon and I soon noticed that the air temperature was perfect. A whisper of a breeze lightly rustled the million pine trees around me and carried their scent along. As I was looked out across miles of space, the sun’s last light began to color the mountains pink and violet. In the canyon below me some coyotes began to call. I was hooked.
There are a lot of things to do in the landscape: hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding, camping, photography, rock-climbing, floating, fishing, hunting. I enjoy many of these things. However, most of them entail moving through the landscape to some degree. I once realized that of all the things I can do in the outdoors, for me plein air painting amounts to the ultimate act of appreciation. It requires me to spend hours taking in one selected spot in nature; hours dedicated to the study and discovery of what I’m seeing. As the small, wonderful revelations unfold, in one sense I become part of the environment in a way that doesn’t happen when I am moving through the landscape. This means I get to see things that others don’t often see.
I’ll tell you one of my favorite painting memories. A few years ago I was in a competition in Rocky Mountain National Park near my home. Afternoon is usually my favorite time of day to paint because the light can be quite dramatic, and I had decided to start a painting on Trail Ridge Road in the Park. Trail Ridge is the highest continuous road in the nation, at around 1100 to 1200 feet in elevation. The ecosystem at this altitude is quite different from lower elevations, and looks somewhat barren and otherworldly. It even sounds different up there. This is the region known as “tree line”, the environmental limit beyond which large trees cannot grow. The stunted trees that do live here struggle to survive and are buffeted year round by extreme wind and cold. They are called “krummholz” (crooked wood) and are known by their twisted shapes and scarcity of limbs on the windward side.
This particular evening I had been painting for a couple of hours when the sun disappeared behind some low clouds. The tourists on the overlook began to get into their cars and drive away, and soon I was left alone, small and invisible on an enormous tundra field. In front of me the tundra stretched out before dropping precipitously down into a richly wooded pine forest. Rising up beyond that was a wall of high mountains, bare at this altitude, except for the glacier patterns that I had been painting. This particular evening was quite still. In this landscape and altitude even the smallest sounds carry unusually far, and I was listening to the picas call out. My painting wasn’t going well, and I worked feverishly as I knew that soon the little light that remained would be gone. Suddenly I looked up to see that an enormous herd of elk had silently emerged from below the drop-off. They covered the field in front of me, feeding on the tundra and slowly meandering toward me, completely unconcerned about my presence. Soon they crossed the road and I was surrounded by them. At just that moment the full intensity of the setting sun broke through a gap in the clouds so that it seemed to be resting on the mountaintops. It bathed the landscape and elk herd in a spectacular golden light, stretching their hundred elongated shadows across the landscape and into the darkening distance. My brush was still as I stood silently, thanking God that I could be there at that moment.
That is why I paint the landscape on location. While plein air painting no longer makes up the bulk of my work, I think I will always continue to paint outdoors for the joy of being and painting in the midst of creation.
Following are a few examples of my plein air works with a few notes if their stories are interesting. Unfortunately, since a lot of my plein air work is done at festivals, I often don’t get good documentation of the work before it sells. All of these are oils.
Thunderhead Over Lumpy Ridge – 8×10”
A little afternoon study painted from the town of Estes Park during the Plein Air Rockies competition.
Dawning Light – 18×20”
This chapel, near Rocky Mountain National Park on Hwy 7, is one of the most beautifully situated pieces of architecture I know of. It appears to emerge from the rock. The story behind it is that a local Monsignor saw a comet hit the earth one evening in 1916. The next day he went looking for it and instead came upon this enormous boulder. He determined to build a chapel on it. After nearly 20 years, and fighting with the Colorado Highway department to keep the rock intact, his dream became a reality in 1936.
Mustang – 6×4”
I never do animals, but I was at an artists party at a ranch and we were supposed to paint. So I followed this guy around, talking to him and trying to get him to stand still. He didn’t.
Mountain Portrait – 5×7”
Of the places I’ve been, Sedona, Arizona is probably my favorite place to paint the natural landscape. The geologic formations and colors are amazing, yet they rise out of a lush environment. This little painting was done from the street on the opening day of a plein air festival.
Evening Concert – 18×20”
Cathedral Rock is supposedly the most photographed site in the country. Indeed, to complete this painting I returned to the site 3 times, and every evening there would already be photographers there, setting up and having a little party. We were all waiting for the sunset to light up Cathedral Rock during the last few minutes of daylight.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Sedona, there is a very visible interest in UFOs, energy vortexes, and all things New Age. Cathedral Rock happens to be one of the main “energy vortex sites,” and I happened to be painting this piece on Oct 31rst. Under a full moon. Just sayin’. At one point I looked up from my painting to see the opposite bank of the river, (pictured here,) covered with about 30 people, kneeling with their faces to the ground. That’s all I know.
Bell Tower – 10×20”
I had a long skinny canvas that I needed to use, and this seemed like a good composition for it. This was painted during the Sedona festival’s “Quick Draw” event – a timed competition where artists complete a painting in 2 hours while the public watches. You’re disqualified if you keep painting after the closing whistle sounds. It’s pretty fun. I’m not a fast painter, and I don’t often like my Quick Draw pieces, though I’ve won several awards for them over the years. This time I decided to ignore the rules when the second whistle blew because I thought the painting would be worth completing to my satisfaction. The blue tiled dome drew me to this view.
Red Planet Diner – 9×12” (lame photo)
This painting explains why I don’t do early morning paintings during plein air events – I love painting lit up urban views at night. I was drawn to this one because of the crazy lighting of this place. Everything inside looked bright pink and violet. Also the whole thing is so Sedona. Sedona’s gotta be the only place with a burger joint called the Red Planet Diner, featuring tables shaped like UFOs, aliens inside, and great 1950s architecture. I had hoped the owner would come out and offer me a free burger, but he never did, so I can’t vouch for the food. This painting won the Artists’ Choice Award, and was purchased by a local Sedonian.
Feed & Grain – 11×14”
This was painted down the street from my house. Readers from Loveland will recognize the historic Feed & Grain building which the community rescued from being leveled. Part of the reason I painted this was to contribute to the sense that it’s a valuable piece of Loveland history. Plus I think it’s a cool building. I expected a local to purchase this piece but instead it ended up in Germany.
Thanks for taking the tour. If you’re a plein air artist I would enjoy hearing your favorite stories.