Issue: Winter 2008
Hurry Up, the Light is Changing!
Written by Stew Mosberg
Ever notice how when you attach a foreign name to something, it seems to take on a more sophisticated meaning? For example, if you change “assorted snacks” to hors d’oeuvres, it makes the mouth water. It seems to cost more when you order an entrée instead of a main course. And eating on the sidewalk becomes a dining experience when it’s called al fresco.
Even a landscape painting appears more urbane when it is done en plein air, instead of, simply, “outdoors.”
When art dealers began to realize the significance of saying a painting was created au plein air instead of “on location,” its aura was enhanced along with the price tag.
Painting outdoors is not a new movement or method; artists have been doing so for centuries, even prodigiously during the Renaissance. But public interest swelled with the work of the Impressionists—hence the method’s French moniker.
Because the movement centered around the study of light and its effect on the subject matter, the Impressionists focused their attention on outdoor themes. Capturing an image required working very fast in order to correctly communicate the atmospheric light on a subject. There isn’t more than an hour or two before natural light will change so radically that a scene can’t be recorded accurately. Monet’s studies of Rouen Cathedral are an excellent example of the shifting light on the surface of a building.
Working quickly necessitates the elimination of details and nuances and forces the artist to make an “impression” of the scene, rather than a photographic representation.
One essential element enabling such activity was the invention of tubes for transporting paints, thus making it possible to carry materials to wherever the artist chose to venture. What a painter chooses to record might require a trek into the woods, up a mountain or into the desert. What adds difficulty to such an obvious commitment is the capriciousness of weather. Snow, rain, high wind and scorching heat not only play a part in the discomfort of the artist, they can wreck havoc with materials. Canvases can blow across wide-open space; sub-freezing temperatures can render paint useless; clouds and fog can obscure a subject.
The “call of the wild” can make an artist’s life fraught with adventure. Some plein air artists won’t travel beyond the limits of their own town or will only visit a location that is a simple drive from their home. Others will visit a more distant site, do a few cursory sketches, a quick color study, make notes, take a photograph or two and finish the work in the comfort of their home studio.
The landscape has been a popular subject for centuries, and one reason this natural light method is so well-liked, particularly in resort communities like Durango, is that our unique surroundings and wildlife provide extraordinary subject matter. The plein air process gives an artist a chance to record the outdoors at a specific point in time and to create images that can be bought and taken home by travelers seeking a memento or an engaging reminder of their visit.
Sheri Rochford, gallery director at Sorrel Sky, concurs. “Sorrel carries several plein air artists because ... they captivate the imagination and evoke different feelings. A good plein air painting can beautifully orchestrate sunsets … [or] illustrate warmth as they remind people of a recent trip to a local area. While plein air artists use different techniques, they often express the effects of light and color that all plein air artists hope to achieve. This diversity makes them a fine addition to the gallery.”
Today, thousands of landscape artists work outdoors, and groups of them have formed organizations in order to paint, exhibit, travel and socialize together.
Many plein air societies are involved in annual events, painting as a group while also being viewed by the public. Often the event includes a “paint off” in which artists vie for prizes: A location is assigned, and a given amount of time, usually two hours, is allowed for recording the subject.
The results are judged by a selected jury, and frequently by an adoring public as well. It’s sort of like the culinary game show, Iron Chef, only with paints.
One of the premier events of this type in our area is the Telluride Plein Air Festival, held in late June to early July, with most events open and free to the public.
The Four Corners Plein Air Painters, a group of like-minded practitioners, started getting together formally about nine years ago.
Durangoan Sharon Abshagen is an active member of the group and has been painting outdoors since her college days. Abshagen refers to herself as a studio painter and views painting outdoors as a supreme challenge. That being said, she is excited by the process. “It requires speed and spontaneity. The brushstrokes are different. It keeps you fresh. It’s always a learning experience and has an unpredictability factor.” Sharon often shows at the Durango Arts Center and usually has six or seven paintings on view at Sorrel Sky Gallery in Durango.
Well-known painter Stephen Day, a graduate of Durango High School now living in Taos, New Mexico, has achieved great success as a painter of outdoor scenes. Represented by a number of galleries in Colorado and elsewhere, Day is also a regular at Sorrel Sky Gallery. His passion for painting outdoors embraces the challenge and, he says, “the fresh response” needed to complete a work.
Out of necessity, most plein air painters work with oils on small canvases. Many use their diminutive canvases as guides and then translate them to larger works. Generating more revenue, the larger artwork pieces also give the artist an opportunity to work in greater detail and not have to contend with the elements while doing so.
Day has been going outdoors to paint since the early 1980s and learned a long time ago that oil paints become quite unusable once the temperature dips below 20 degrees. Like his peers, working quickly before the light changes, he tries to get as much done as possible, and then will switch to a different scene. He might do as many as four different paintings in one day. “I like painting outdoors,” he says, “because all the information is there.”
Day prefers to work alone, as opposed to in group gatherings. Those who do paint in a group often do so for the feedback and socializing, but admit it can affect focus. Group painting also requires a consensus on location, which may not always be the individual’s first choice.
Karl Brenner is a retired surgeon, now living in Durango. As a young man, he had to decide between a career as an artist or one in medicine. Making a living suggested the latter, and although he continued to paint as a hobby, it wasn’t until 2001 that he left the world of sutures and scalpels, moved to La Plata County and became a full-time artist. His effort and talent were recently rewarded in Ouray, Colorado, where he won first prize at the Artists’ Alpine Holiday Show.
Brenner also believes that painting is more of a solitary pursuit, yet finds working in a group helpful for locating the best place to paint and, more importantly, gaining valuable advice from those he respects.
Wind is often the enemy of the outdoor painter, just as much as rain, heat, sleet and snow. “One time,” Brenner recalls, “my canvas blew off my easel and landed in a creek. Another time it toppled off into the dirt—face down.” To limit such occurrences, he sometimes wears a harness around his neck with the palette attached. Brenner’s work is available through the JRB Art Gallery in Oklahoma City.
Mar Evers, a longtime resident of Durango, shows locally at Cloudberries and also in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at the L Bar Western Art Gallery in Kerrville, Texas, and at the Elk Horn Art Gallery in Winter Park, Colorado. She has been painting en plein air for eight years, getting started as the result of an invitation to the Jackson Hole Quick Draw Art Show & Auction. Many of her paintings incorporate wildlife, which she admits are a melding of her outdoor painting and the photographs she takes of animals that she then composes in the studio.
One of her most trying experiences in the field was a day when temperatures reached in excess of 100 degrees. “It was hard to focus,” she remembers, “and my eyes went down to pin points.”
Evers comments that working au plein air is such an unpredictable process that she believes “only one in ten of my pieces are good enough.”
Styles and techniques used by plein air painters are as varied as the artists themselves. Those who are up to the challenge of meeting the elements head-on, working quickly and capturing nature’s bounty on canvas, have found an enthusiastic audience for their work.
For an artist, painting au plein air will most likely continue to be one of the more challenging, yet gratifying, methods of creating well-liked, much sought-after, collectible artwork.
Mar Evers au plein air
”Coon Creek” by Sharon Abshagen, oil on canvas
Karl Brenner au plein air
”Reverence” by Steven Day, oil on canvas, 40” x 30”
Work by Stephen Day and Sharon Abshagen can be seen locally at Sorrel Sky Gallery, 870 Main Avenue, Durango. To view Mar Evers’ work, visit Cloudberries, 1019 Main Avenue, Durango. Karl Brenner is represented in Oklahoma City. For more information about the upcoming Four Corners Commission Show–celebrating the life and beauty of the Southwest in art–see Resources/Call for Artists page 24.
Stew Mosberg is a freelance writer living in Bayfield, Colorado. He is the former publisher of the Cultural Times art news and the Colorado Correspondent for Art Talk magazine. Stew is also the author of two books on design, a recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a former member of the U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment on Designing for the Environment. His email address is email@example.com.