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A Month of Adventure: Estes Valley Plein Air and Blue Ridge Mountains Paint-Out

I spent half of August and half of September on a month-long adventure of travel and plein air painting. Two weeks were in Colorado at the Estes Valley Plein Air event where I painted almost every day in beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park near the town of Estes Park, Colorado. And one week was in the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains, near Blue Ridge, Georgia. I completed 11 paintings.

It was an honor to be juried into the Estes Valley Plein Air event, which was sponsored by the Art Center of Estes Park, and managed by the very capable team of Lars and Kristi. I opted to drive, instead of fly, from Florida to Colorado to reduce expenses. I had a cabin to stay in while I was there, thanks to the generosity of my friend Dr. Cynthia Reedy, but while traveling to and from, I tent-camped. I used love being in the great outdoors, “roughing it”. By camping and driving, I saved a $500 flight and a $900+ car rental and probably at least $500 in motels. I also saved the trouble and expense of shipping my frames and canvases and tools and equipment. I did buy new tires before I left, which I paid for by instructing a course for the employees of the business I had recently sold. Even so, except for the fact that I have family in Colorado, traveling this distance for an event is worthwhile as a business venture only if sales are generated.

The mountains of Colorado were very smoky the first week, from the bad forest fires further west. The smoke washed out mid-distant and distant colors. The second week the winds blew the smoke down to Denver, clearing the skies in the high country, but the winds also made it very difficult to work with an easel. I adapted as best I could, at one point even clamping my canvas to the bottom of my tripod, with my palette on the ground. There were other challenges. It threatened to rain most afternoons, and a few times it poured.

My days began by waking up in the dark, packing my lunch snack, and driving the slow trip up the 9 miles of one-way gravel switchbacks of Old Fall River Road, to get up to Mile 8 where I could pull off and hike out a short distance to my view of the entire glacial cirque just below the Alpine Visitors Center. I had wanted to paint this view since seeing it anew the previous year when I went to Estes Park for a pain ting workshop with Morgan Samuel Price. Some days it was far too windy and cold or too gray to paint plein air. I think I made the hour-long drive 7 days but was able to work on this painting only 3 mornings. I wanted to capture the grandeur of the morning vista. To see in image larger, click here, and click again if “+” appears under your cursor.

Oil painting of the glacial cirque near Fall River Pass, just below the Alpine Visitors Center, Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colorado
Fall River Glacial Cirque, 15×30 oils on canvas panel, en plein air

The barometric pressure high altitude  is much much lower than at my sea level home where it is usually around 30 inHg. A barometer at the Visitors Center displayed 19.28 inHg. I did suffer a mild case of altitude sickness the first few days I drove to the top, mainly a headache and just generally feeling unwell.  After the third time, I wasn’t bothered anymore. The area of the glacial cirque was chilly. The air temperature decreases 3.6° for every 1000′ increase in elevation, and the Visitors Center sits more than 4000 feet higher than the city of Estes Park. In addition, it was almost always windy, or at least gusty, which increased the chill considerably. But when I am painting en plein air, my focus becomes so intense I often lose track of discomforts. A few hours into my painting up there on the first day that I painted, I noticed a small marmot out of the corner of my eye, and turned around; there were four marmot pups busy running and grubbing near me, one almost at my feet! I guess if you stay quiet in one place for long enough, they think you are part of the landscape! I’ve posted longer videos on Facebook — here’s a shorter one:

My sisters and brothers-in-law rented a condo above Estes Park the first weekend I was there. Trudy and Steve came up from their home in Westminster and Sherrie and Mark from Greeley, and one of their daughters, Caitlin, came up from her home in Cheyenne. I think their chief entertainment is creating irresistible, delectable foods, and this weekend was no exception. I have no idea how they stay so fit. We hiked up to Gem Lake from Lumpy Ridge, my mentor and friend Morgan Samuel Price joining us. Morgan was there to teach a workshop, which I had taken the year before. I of course could hardly breathe at that altitude but after the 2-mile climb, was it ever worth it when we finally reached our destination. Below, a photo of Gem Lake.

Gem Lake, above Lumpy Ridge, Estes Park, Colorado

The artists of Estes Valley Plein Air were invited to paint a nocturne or a painting in town, in Estes Park, and I opted for the nocturne. I started when the sun went down, about 8:30, and finished close to 11 PM. Meanwhile the temperature dropped, quickly. I was dressed in light jeans and a fleece sweatshirt. As I said before, I don’t notice discomforts while I am painting, but I certainly noticed that I was shivering towards the end. I couldn’t feel my fingertips when I put my gear away. I couldn’t believe it when I got in my car — the display said it was 46°! No wonder it felt a little chilly. Coming from the humid deep south, the dry Colorado air felt cold, but not that cold! If it had been Northwest Florida, I would have quit after just 30 minutes!

Nocturne oil painting of the south entrance to Riverwalk Park / Riverside Plaza in Estes Park, Colorado
Riverwalk at Night, 11×14 oils on canvas panel, en plein air

Another special category was a sweet little park called Mrs. Walsh’s Garden. It had a meandering path, a pond and small waterfall, and lots of hummingbirds. Even Peter Cottontail came hopping up to within 10′ of me, becoming a statue when he saw me, and then fleeing fast as lightning. The hummingbirds thought my bright shirt was a flower. Here’s a video of a hummingbird taking a bath on the rock beside the waterfall:

I enjoyed painting the gentian flowers below, one of the few times I have used color straight out of the tube, as intense as it could be. I may accent the hummingbird a little more when the painting returns to me from the exhibit at the Art Center of Estes Park. I think people don’t notice it unless I tell them to look for it.

Oil painting of a hummingbird feeding on gentian in Mrs. Walsh's Garden, a city park in Estes Park, Colorado
Mrs. Walsh’s Gentian Visitor, 11×14 oils on canvas panel, en plein air

One day I hunted high and low for a location where I would be sheltered from the high winds and finally decided to deploy my Under The Weather Pod for the first time. I staked down the two back corners of the floor, and tied the top two back corners to the tree behind me. This allowed me to set up my easel and paint without freezing to death or getting bowled over by the wind. I still had to be on guard for the twisting gusts, but I managed to complete a painting beside Big Thompson Creek in Moraine Park, below.

Oil painting of the Big Thompson River flowing through Moraine Park above Estes Park, Colorado
Moraine Wind, 11×14 oils on canvas panel, en plein air

We were asked to frame a reserve painting so the Art Center would have something to fill the space if a painting sold. My reserve painting is “Where Are The Sheep?”, expressing my frustration that no bighorn sheep ever came down to Sheep Lakes in the Fall River Valley the whole time I was there! A herd of elk grazed in the distance one morning, but nary a single sheep! Nevertheless, the colors were beautiful in the early morning.

Oil painting of Sheep Lakes in Fall River Valley near Estes Park, Colorado
Where Are The Sheep? 10×20 oils on canvas panel, en plein air

I also participated in the Quickdraw in Estes Park, which was held in the same area where I had done my nocturne. I am pleased to report that mine sold in the very entertaining auction held immediately after the awards were announced. We only had 90 minutes to complete our painting, which was the fastest I had ever had to painting, at least until Blue Ridge two weeks later!!

Oil Painting of the bridge over the creek at Riverwalk Park in Estes Park, Colorado
My Quickdraw Painting at Estes Park, 9×12 oils on canvas panel, , en plein air

The next time I drive across the country, I am going to take an extra day or two to see the sights along the way. I went past Amarillo, where just 30 minutes south is the Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the United States. I was on a timeline, so I drove past, both going and coming back. On the return trip, I was heading to Blue Ridge, Georgia, to meet up with my painting buddies from home. We were all going to paint in the Blue Ridge Mountains Arts Association Paint-Out. We stayed in Young Harris, GA, at the mountain home of John and Theresia McInnis. Theresia is an accomplished watercolorist and hostess extraordinaire. Elia Saxer, Beckie Hart, Brady DeGrasse, and Charlotte Arnold came up to paint as well, and we had a wonderful time painting, eating, and socializing. And I am happy to report that one of my paintings, Stanley Rapids, was awarded third place in the BRMAA Wet Room!

Oil painting of Stanley Rapids on the Taccoa River in Fannin County, Georgia
Stanley Rapids, 10×20 oils on canvas panel, painted en plein air.

I also painted the terraced waterfalls of the creek running through Taccoa Valley Campground. My sensations while painting were th roar of the Taccoa River behind me, campfire smoke in the air, light filtering through the trees and glittering in the waterfalls, children playing, soft leaves underfoot.

Oil painting of the creek flowing through the Taccoa Valley Campground to the Taccoa River in Fannin County, GA
Toccoa Valley Campground, 15 x 30 oils on canvas panel

On the last day I looked up a stand-up paddleboarding friend who lives in Blue Ridge, and painted some of the critters on his farm.

Oil painting of two horses and two goats on Chris Tilghman's farm in Blue Ridge, Georgia
On Chris’s Farm, 11×14 oils on canvas panel

I learned a lot about my ability to organize for a trip like this, and for next time, what to bring and what to leave at home. Certainly I could have ordered my frames to be shipped to Estes Park so that I wouldn’t have had to carry them in my car — that would have lightened my load and improved my gas mileage a little.That also would have allowed me to sleep in my car instead of my tent on the one night that rain threatened. I doubt I will reduce the amount of oil painting supplies I bring, but I probably will leave my gouache set and my watercolors at home if I do this trip again. The thing is, you just never know when you might want to do a study, and I want all options available, even though I always make my paintings using oils. I was surprised to find that I needed my back-up easel and clamps that I had brought in case I broke mine. My panel holder broke one day – a screw became stripped, so I was very happy to have an alternate way to hold my painting, but the main reason I used it was to hold my sign advertising the Art Center of Estes Park where the paintings were to be exhibited. Up in the high country it was too windy to try to clamp the sign to my easel.

I met many of the other artists both locations, and am sure I will run into many of them again. I remain a little intimidated — some have been painting for 20 or 30 years or more, all during the time that I was in my business career. But all were very friendly, and the icing on the cake in Colorado was to meet up with and paint with my college friend Daniel Sprick, who came up from Denver for the Q&A after the showing of a PBS documentary on his development as an artist, put on by the Estes Park Art Museum. Dan is a recognized contemporary master painter, and he will be the keynote speaker at the Figurative Arts Convention in Miami next month.

Joan Vienot painting with college friend Daniel Sprick at Lumpy Ridge, Estes Park, Colorado, 8/29/2018

 

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Commissions Under Pressure – Plein Air at Events

Oil painting of Hunter and Meredith dancing outdoors at Grayt Grounds in wedding reception - final piece
Oil Painting of Couple Dancing Outdoors by Bridge, Impressionist Style
May, 2014

Those who follow my blog know that I contract to paint plein air at wedding receptions at Grayt Grounds of Monet Monet where my plein air paintings are shown.  I blogged about it in May, “Commissioned Works en Plein Air.” So you might think it would become old hat, painting the same setting.  But the colors are different, the sounds change, the plants change, the people are different, and most of all, the light changes, so the challenges are always there, and I must always grow as a result. If the scene feels too familiar, all I need to do is move my easel a little, or turn my head, for a new point of view. I am not so fast as to actually paint the couple on site — instead I paint the surroundings in the hour before the event, and then I take photos and sketch a gesture of their entrance or first dance or whatever scene they choose, and then I may block in the general silhouette of the couple. I complete the painting in the studio. The biggest challenge, in commissioned work, of course is pleasing the client, and that includes working with color choices that compliment or repeat the design colors of the event, and sometimes it includes altering my painting style to lean towards a particular style the client likes.

Oil painting of the bridge and garden at Grayt Grounds of Monet Monet, plein air preparation for painting a wedding couple's first dance
Plan A, with afternoon light

My most recent contract was a month ago, in September.  I had gotten the time wrong, thinking the newly wedded couple would be making their entrance around 5:30 instead of 7:30, so I was painting the entire back scene with late afternoon light in preparation for adding the couple when they made their entrance. I had planned to catch the couple coming across the bridge over the coy pond, placing them slightly right of center, against the spray of the green bamboo like plant that grows behind the bridge.

When the couple made their entrance at 7:30, my entire painting was wrong — the garden was now illuminated by string lights instead of afternoon sunlight. Plan B:  Start a second painting!!!  I was only minimally prepared for a nocturne, but I needed to get my painter’s sense of the location, the sounds, the vibrancy of the lights, the energy of the party. By painter’s sense, I mean that visceral impression of myself being a participant in the scene and not just an observer. I needed to be able to recall all of it, not just relying on photo references, which convey only a small part of what I try to project. I set up my little lights, one on my palette and one on my painting, and knocked out a study of the light-wrapped trees and the dance patio to help me do the job right when I got back to the studio.

2014-0920 Grayt Grounds Nocturne Study
Plan B, nocturne study

The challenges of painting a nocturne successfully include first of all, believable colors. My palette from the afternoon painting was not the colors I would have chosen if I had planned a nocturne, but I was under the gun to capture the light-wrapped trees and the energy of the gardens so I used my afternoon palette.  I don’t judge the resulting study — it has so much background energy, it looks like the place is on fire — it was perfect for reminding me of some of the feeling I needed to capture, even though I needed to figure out how to paint the light-wrapped trees better.

A little about composition… When I teach, I suggest that my students stick to the safer “rule of thirds” for the focal point, which means putting the focus of the painting on one of the intersections of the horizontal and vertical tri-sections of the painting. By putting the couple smack in the middle of the painting, I was challenged to direct the viewer’s eye. I didn’t want the eye to go straight to the center and just stay there.  I wanted the eye to circle the painting, returning again and again to center, to help the viewer look at the painting for a longer period of time. That required more attention to the crowd than I was visualizing at the actual event, and especially more attention to the figures at the outside edges, who are intended to help the eye circle, and by their body position also help redirect the attention back to center. The scene is dramatized by the blue and red spotlights that were on the couple during their First Dance.

By writing this, I am reminded how many decisions go into making a painting. When painting plein air, those decisions are made on the fly; they are more considered in the studio. To arrange for me to paint plein air at your event, contact Cheri Peebles at Grayt Grounds: http://graytgrounds.com/contact/.

Oil painting of couple dancing outdoors at Grayt Grounds in wedding reception - final piece