Boulder Plein Air Festival

Boulder/Lyons June 6-11

Sue painting along the St. Vrain

What a week it was!  This past week was the Boulder Plein Air Festival and I thought I’d share with you what it is like to be involved with such an event and a little bit about how each painting was created.  If you want to skip the details, be sure to jump to the end of this post for some exciting news!

Before I go into the details of the event, I thought I would share with you my plein air setup since so many people ask me about this.  When I am painting in acrylics I have a large pack that weighs about 20 pounds.  Inside the pack is a tripod, my easel, a palette holder, an umbrella, a stay wet palette, paint brushes, a sketch book and palette knives, about 10 tubes of paint, my painting apron, a hat, paper towel to wipe my brushes, water to drink and washes my brushes, a spray bottle, and a Panel Pak that allows my to carry to painting panels (wet or dry).  I also have sunscreen, bug spray, a trash bag, a bungee cord and a snack bar for those longer days.  My watercolor setup is much smaller and lighter because I usually sit and paint in my lap, so I don’t need the whole easel setup.  In my watercolor pack I carry a small folding stool, a travel watercolor kit with a few extra tubes of paint (unique colors that I might need for just that day), a water bottle for my to drink and use for painting, paint brushes, paper towel, hat, bug spray, sunscreen and watercolor paper. You can see from the photos that this medium of painting is much more manageable. You can see the difference below:

My Acrylic Setup
My Watercolor Setup

If you want more details about each of these products please feel free to ask me and I can write another blog describing each of these items functions.

The first morning started off with all the entrants stopping by a central location with their blank canvases that they anticipate using for the week.  The host stamps the back of these canvases so that they know everyone starts off with a blank canvas.  Everyone is provided a list of recommended locations to paint, but we can paint anywhere within Boulder County lines. I had been searching out locations that I thought would be good the few weeks leading up to the event.  Boulder has received a lot of rain recently so everything is green and lush but I wanted to paint more than just green. The wildflowers had started blooming so I knew where I could find some color. 

The view that inspired me

I started off doing my first painting at a location where I often hike with Buddy.  I had noticed that the glorious poppies had started to bloom, and there was an amazing vista of the Flatirons in the distance.  I hiked up the steep hill with my pack on, set up my easel around 6 am to catch the morning light as well as beat the heat.  (Unfortunately, we experienced a heat wave the entire week, so I was often painting in 90-degree heat.)  It was a bit of a challenge to paint in this location because I was standing on a sloped surface.  When I am painting, I often will step back about 6 ft every 10 minutes so that I can get a better perspective of my progress and see what needs adjusting.  Going back and forth all morning dodging rocks and being on a slope was a challenge. In this painting I was using the poppies and morning light on the grasses to guide the viewers eye back in the painting to the distant Flatirons. I was able to capture the effect I wanted and was happy with my painting.

It’s Poppy Season

That afternoon I decided to head over to Chautauqua Park to start a sketch of one of the charming cottages.  I found a fairly shady spot and sat down to get a base sketch done. I intended this painting to be a watercolor because I have found that I am able to get better detail with my watercolors.  Perhaps it is because I have a lot more experience in watercolors than I do in acrylics.  Unfortunately a thunderstorm pulled in and it started to rain so I decided that I would paint this one at a later date.  It is now a half done painting waiting to be finished another day.

A photo of the cottage
The start of a painting

The next morning, I got up early again and decided to paint along the St. Vrain river in nearby Lyons.  We camp here often and love the rocks, the river and the amazing purple wildflowers.  I have been studying a lot about composition, movement in a painting and selecting focal points.  With this painting I really tried to work on the composition.  The river is meant to draw your eye into the painting, the tree on the right is intended to hold your eye and not let it flow off the page, the edge of the main rock structure draws your eye to the center and the brighter yellow color adjacent to the dark green is meant to also give you a focal point.  It has been an interesting exercise to think more about these elements and try to incorporate them into my work.

The St. Vrain

That afternoon I was in search of a good shady spot again and remembered a church that I used to bike past.  This is a quaint historic church perched on the top of a rolling hill with great big trees and a beautiful cemetery.  I walked around the grounds to see which viewpoint I preferred. I stopped to take a few photos of some beautiful peonies and was startled when an enormous snake slithered past my feet.  Fortunately it was not a rattlesnake…..but it sure gave me a scare. I ultimately found a great spot to sit and paint for the afternoon (and made sure there were no snakes nearby).  I decided this subject matter would be better suited to watercolors.  I am trying out a new painting surface (probably not the best idea to do in a competition) which is a hardboard covered in a linen the accepts watercolor.  I liked this idea because with this surface I would be able to varnish and frame the painting without needing protective glass (as is needed with traditional watercolor paper).  The downside to this new surface is that the watercolor paints do not run and bleed like they do on traditional paper.  However, the paint does lift off the paper which means you can correct mistakes but have to be very careful not to paint over areas that are already completed.

The Historic Ryssby Church

On Day 3 I got up early again and went back to make a few touch ups to the painting I had done the previous day at the St. Vrain river.  Often I will take a painting and hang it somewhere in the house where I can stare at it for awhile to see what changes it needs.  I saw a few tweaks that I thought would make the painting better so I went back for a few hours to make the painting stronger.

That afternoon I headed back to Chautauqua Park but decided not to work on my half done painting of the cottage, but instead to start on a painting of the Ranger Station with the Flatirons in the background.  On this painting I was trying to focus on capturing the architecture.  With my architecture background and drawing skills I have been thinking about going back and using them more.  Early in my painting career I focused on doors and windows of Europe and have somehow let that go.  It has resurfaced in my desire to paint, and I decided to follow that feeling.  I placed myself in a great shady spot that is full of tourist.  It was a bit intimidating because I had a lot of people stop to look and ask questions.  I enjoy the interaction and ultimately it was rewarding.  This painting took a lot more preparation because I had to make the drawing more accurate.  I did take some liberties and made a few changes to simplify the building.   This painting was also done in two different sessions because it was labor intensive and as I looked at it back at home, I realized that I needed to make some changes.   It was hot and grey afternoon so the shadows were not strong, but I would like to go back another day when the lighting is better.

Meet me at the Ranger Station

The final morning I was able to paint at a private residence out in the country with gorgeous flower beds.  The owner was gracious enough to let a few of us paint on their property.  I walked around and couldn’t decide if I should paint some flowers close up or do a larger subject matter.  Ultimately, I decided to go for a larger view.  I loved how the walls of this garden provided a sense of drawing the eye back and yet enclosing the flower bed to keep the eye focused in with the strong color.  This ended up being one of my favorites that I painted over the 4 days of painting.

Summer Flowers in the Country

The next big challenge of painting in a Plein Air Festival is that the artist has to have all their work submitted by a certain time and it must be framed and ready for a sale.  So, I made a mad dash home that afternoon to varnish my paintings, let them dry and then frame them.  This generally means that most artists paint in a standard size panel/canvas and has already pre-purchased frames to fit these paintings.

The Paintings on Display

At last, the exhibition is hung, and the show and jurying begin.  Each Festival has its own rules on how many paintings can be entered for the jury, what awards will be given out etc.  And the jury process is always interesting to see what the judge picks.  It is subjective and sometimes I don’t always agree with the paintings they choose.  I will say, that there were about 200 paintings submitted by 50 artists and most of them were of very high standards.  I was extremely pleased to find out at the end of the evening that I had won a 2nd Place in Acrylics award for my painting “It’s Poppy Season”.  I was so excited to say the least!  If you are a Boulder local and you would like to see all the great art produced during the week stop by the temporary gallery at 1881 9th Street between Canyon and Walnut, Suite 110.

My next Plein Air Festival on the calendar is in Steamboat Springs, CO in September and I am already looking forward to it and all the fall colors!

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