With plein air painting, the work gets done rain or shine

With 300 days of sunshine, Boulder County can be a perfect place for a plein air painting festival. But not always.

Colorado’s weather is also remarkably unpredictable, as Boulder-based Open Studios has sometimes discovered with its annual Boulder Plein Air Festival.

Even when spring should have sprung, rain and snow don’t show deference to the best-laid plans of arts organizations. Good thing artists are an ingenious lot. That includes Colorado natives, artists who moved to Boulder County — which was named an arts cluster in 2016 — and artists who traveled to the Front Range for the Plein Air Festival.

Painting outdoors, also known as plein air painting, became particularly popular during the 19th century heyday of impressionist artists, who particularly valued natural light. In recent years, it has enjoyed a resurgence as a way to bring the arts to the community.

Local artist Kathleen Reilly used a door in a barn at Blue Cloud Farm to frame her view. The choice also had the obvious advantage of placing her inside as she put oil to canvas.

“That was a miserable day,” she said of the cold, rain, snow and sleet, but not the painting experience. “I saw the barn. It was a really good place to paint."

Reilly, who worked as a technical illustrator, said plein air painting is valuable for the artist.

“It’s almost like meditation. You’re really focused on it,” she said. “It’s really a challenge to start and finish a picture in a two-hour window before the sun moves or the weather changes.”

In addition, the outdoors magnifies the experience.

“You not only get to see it, you hear it, smell it, feel it. It’s just a lot more intense,” she said.

George Sanderson, who has been painting in oil and other media for 45 years, has devised an all-weather plein air kit of sorts.“I made it myself from a table-top easel, a heavy duty surveyor’s tripod, a (hanging) bag to put rocks in to weigh it down if it gets windy and a cup holder (for) tea or coffee or beer,” he said. “I prefer to paint outside, and I bring an umbrella.”

But even such Boy-Scout level preparation was not enough when a scheduled painting day in Niwot brought heavy, wet snow. Undaunted, many artists found a way.

“(One artist) titled her piece situationally: ‘From the Back of My Subaru,’ ” said Mary Horrocks, executive director of Open Studios and organizer of the Plein Air Festival.

Sanderson worked from the cab of his truck. He and several other artists did their work close to home, rather than making the slippery trek to Niwot. Sanderson set up with a view of a playground in North Boulder.

Snow falling on an unused slide made a nice focal point.

“I was unable to set up for oil painting,” he said, “but I did a nice pen and ink and watercolor."

On other festival days, such as an event at Coot Lake, and a two-hour paintout on Pearl Street, the weather cooperated.

“Everyone ultimately had a great time,” Sanderson said. “We could share horror stories about painting in the snow.”

by Cindy Sutter