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Mother Nature, A Menace And Muse For Colo. Plein Air Painters

For the artist in their studio, solitude is their only constant companion. Then there's plein air painters. Urgency is their companion and nature their studio. That's because plein air paintings go from idea-on-an-easel to gallery-ready in two hours time and all out in the open.

“There’s the bugs that are challenging, there’s the wind, creatures, wild animals, and a lot of times you will be trying to paint and there will be a lot of people around, so there’s that too,” according to Colorado Plein Air painter Ed Sirokman.

‘En plein air,’ French for open air, is to painting as sprinting is to distance running. It builds agility and requires one to work quickly.

“The sunlight is shifting all the time, so it’s a very hard discipline,” said Sirokman. “You kinda have to get setup and you have about a one and a half to two hour window to paint, otherwise the light is completely different.”

Plein air painting became popular in the 19th century thanks to the advent of pre-mixed oil paints. Before that advance, they needed to mix their own pigments – a multi-step process. Ready-made oil paints made it possible for artists to adopt the sentiment, ‘have easel, will travel.’

Established seven years ago, The Colorado Plein Air Festival has developed into the largest plein air festival in the country according to executive director Robin Riddel Lima. For 2013, more than 140 artists participated in painting sessions at different locations across the state.

“I think when people realize what this work, how its’ been made in that manner then they really appreciate what they are looking at,” said Lima.

Artist Sean Conroytook part in this year’s first paint, held in August at the State Capital. Having recently relocated from New Orleans to Denver, Conroy said he enjoys the unexpected nature of plein air painting.

“It is sort of like gardening,” said Conroy. “Like when you start digging into the dirt and the worms come out and you notice the birds are chirping because you are releasing worms. You are out there in the mix and just channeling all the natural energy onto a two-dimensional surface.”

If long-time Colorado Plein Air Festival painter Ed Sirokman’s experience is any indication, this won’t be Sean Conroy’s last time painting ‘en plein air.’

“It’s kind of addictive in a way, you know. Because it’s, when you go back to trying to use photo references then it’s just too boring and it’s more like a job,” Sirokman added with a chuckle.

So, for these artists, bugs, wild animals, and race-against time it is.

Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, Rocky Mountain PBS, and KUVO.

A native of Stamford, VT, I call(ed) the Berkshires of western Massachusetts my home. The Berkshires are a culturally rich area -- I’m talking pass the butter and heavy cream -- rich.
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