While fireworks and American flags traditionally mark the arrival of this time of year, in Telluride, artists with easels set up in various spots throughout town also means it’s Fourth of July.
The 21 plein air artists, who paint the area’s many landscapes from their own unique perspectives, this year are participating in the Sheridan Arts Foundation’s Telluride Plein Air Festival, which runs through Sunday.
This year’s participants are Kirsten Anderson, Marc Anderson, Suzie Baker, Jill Banks, Allen Brockbank, Krystal Brown, Philip Alexander Carlton, David E. Dallison, Catherine Hillis, Jody Kauflin, Mat Barber Kennedy, Tammie Lane, Christine Lashley, Wayne McKenzie, Alison Leigh Menke, Bill Meuser, Rita Pacheco, Chrissy Pahucki, D.K. Palecek, Carol Tarzier and Chris Willey.
After the festival had to be significantly altered last year due to the COVID-19, particularly featuring fewer artists than usual, everyone is glad to return to a more normal format this year, said Maggie Stevens, the foundation’s public relations and marketing director.
“The whole staff is really excited and grateful to be back to a full event. While last year's event was still a success, it's a relief to be back to our usual number of artists from 10 back to 21,” she said of the 18th annual festival. “Artists are happy to be out and about again. Most of our artists are constantly on the road to different plein air festivals all over the country, so the pandemic provided a forced break. Everyone seems very happy to be in Telluride and painting in the great outdoors again, despite the weather this week.”
The artists are free to paint as much as they like throughout the week, before a three-day art exhibit at the Sheridan Opera House. Stevens shared that each artist typically completes 10-20 pieces, which makes for 200-plus paintings for the exhibit, as well as featuring one studio piece of the area, which is differentiated by its price. Though only eight or 10 pieces can be displayed at once, 40 percent of all artwork profits benefit the foundation, while the artist retains the remaining 60 percent.
One of the foundation’s biggest fundraisers each year, the festival supports community programming and the continual upkeep and restoration of the 100-plus-year old opera house. After the pandemic wiped out virtually any chance of hosting events last year, the opera house is planning to open up to full capacity in July, Stevens said.
“Telluride Plein Air is an essential fundraiser for the Sheridan Arts Foundation every year, but especially now after basically having no programming income for over a year,” she added. “Despite grants and donations, we are still in need of income to make up for the deficit that COVID has caused.”
This year’s plein air artists were selected through a juried process in late 2019, in which applicants submitted images and a biography to be reviewed by a panel of artists, gallery owners and educators. The artists were all asked to return in 2021 since the 17th annual Telluride Plein Air Festival was “extremely reduced in size and events,” according to a news release.
Each year the top-selling artists and the Artist Choice first place-winning artist from the previous event are invited back to participate. Christine Lashley won the Artist Choice in 2019. Top sellers from 2019 who will return this year are Anderson, Banks, Kennedy, Lashley and McKenzie. The top sellers during last year’s event were Banks and Dallison, but no Artist Choice competition was held.
So what exactly is plein air painting? “En plein air” is a French expression that means “in the open air” and has historically been used to describe the act of painting outdoors. Artists have long painted outdoors, but in the mid-19th century working in natural light became increasingly important to multiple schools of art. The Barbizon school of France was of particular influence on the Realists, who focused their work on everyday subjects versus prominent figures. The Realists inspired the Impressionists, whose style included visible brush strokes, ordinary subject matter and an emphasis on light in its changing qualities.
The popularity of painting en plein air only increased in the 1870s with the introduction of paint in tubes, which replaced the task of grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil. It was also during this period that the box easel, typically known as the French box easel, was invented, which increased the ease and portability of art supplies, making treks into the forest and up the hillsides less intimidating and more appealing to those looking to paint new landscapes. Lead by Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the Impressionists took their paint tubes and easels outdoors, where they recreated the world as colors. At first these outdoor sketches were taken home to be finished in the studio, but eventually artists began to complete their works outdoors. Although at first rebuffed for what appeared to be unfinished paintings, the Impressionist vision soon became a standard for truthfully conveying the outdoor experience.
Artists in the United States were attracted to the concept, and many, like Californian Guy Rose, traveled to France to study with the French Impressionists. Suddenly, locations with remarkable light were of particular interest to painters on both the East and West coasts, as well as the American Southwest, where painting colonies formed. And the rest, as they say, is history.