Process Points | Visual Arts

Light on the Reef: En Plein Watercolor Adventure in Capitol Reef

“Hardy” is a good adjective to describe plants that grow in our desert environment. The same word describes artists who choose to paint outdoors, en plein air, in heat, wind, snow, cold, pretty much year round. Do I have “the right stuff” to paint along with the hardiest of the Utah Watercolor Society (UWS) plein air painters? I decided to find out.

Led by Maggie Harrison and Linda Flannery, UWS members are invited each month to a no-cost “paintout,” usually in the Salt Lake area, but more recently in Torrey and Logan. In the worst-weather months, the group gathers indoors at places like Cactus and Tropicals or Trolley Square.

Other than a few random plein air experiences with UWS and an intensive workshop with Doug Braithwaite a few years back, I am a novice plein air painter. And the watercolor medium is especially challenging in arid Utah. But, here goes, I thought as I signed up for a special weekend paintout in Torrey in early June. I have nothing to lose and so much to learn.

The weekend event was hosted by Capitol Reef National Park and the Entrada Institute, a non-profit cultural arts organization for the Colorado Plateau. The 30+ UWS artists who registered for the first-ever “Arts and the Park: Light on the Reef” were happy to be guinea pigs for what organizers hope will be an annual event open to artists in all media.

Paints and palette, check; paper, check; brushes and water container, check; sunscreen, hat, and chair, check, check, check. After arriving in Torrey late on a Thursday afternoon, my painting partner and I drove through Capitol Reef to scout locations for a Friday morning painting. It took no more than a few seconds at our first stop for a photo op to discover what we forgot to pack — bug spray. Gnat season in the park was usually over by early June, we had been told, but there was something about this year’s weather patterns that kept them around — and biting.

After an early Friday optional meditation session led by representatives from Entrada Institute, watercolorists scattered to all parts of the park, some looking for the most spectacular red rock formations, others determined to find a bit of shade along with the view. Sandy Fullmer and I headed for the end of the paved road in Capitol Reef Gorge where there was a covered picnic pad with dramatic views and early morning shadows.

Well coated with slimey, smelly bug repellant, we set up to paint. The second most essential equipment for the watercolorist, after bug spray, is a spray bottle for water. Through the morning we would repeatedly spray our palettes to keep the paints wet enough to use.

Water, of course, is an essential part of watercolor painting — knowing how much to use, how to use it to mix colors wet-into-wet on the paper, and how to use it to vary edge quality. What you may have mastered in the studio is a whole new challenge outdoors in the desert. You must be fast if you want soft or lost edges. Furthermore, fast-drying watercolor in the outdoors leaves less opportunity to make changes or re-work an area. And with the pressure of a plein air competition and the requirement to paint a bit faster than usual, spontaneity is key. Confidence with color, values, and the pigment-water ratio makes all the difference. That confidence comes with practice.

With all these challenges, why paint outdoors with watercolor? I asked myself that because I’ve been painting plein air with oils this spring. Tom Howard, last year’s UWS president, uses both mediums outdoors.  “Watercolor is the more demanding of the two mediums for me, because it requires me to draw more carefully and place my elements correctly in the first place,” says Howard. “Consequently I feel it helps keep my drawing skills sharp. Correcting mistakes can be more of a challenge. What watercolor does for me is reflect light in a more luminous way. Watercolor also can flow and leave a mark that no other medium can, especially oil. There are times when an oil painting just can’t do justice for an image like watercolor can. When is this the case? Sometimes I don’t really know until I try it.”

Linda Flannery, who has been painting outdoors for more than 40 years, finds watercolor “a perfect medium for plein air. It’s fast and immediate just like the environment,” says Flannery. “As the light changes, your painting changes.”

Event organizers set up a lunch station near the park visitor center. The most frequent topic of conversation? Yep, gnats. Few artists were immune from the biting critters and misery loves company. Nevertheless, all returned to painting — some in different locations — in the afternoon.

After a full day and a half of painting, artists headed back to hotels and campgrounds to mat and frame their work for delivery to Robber’s Roost, headquarters for Entrada and venue for the evening’s reception and auction. Artists hung paintings outdoors on wire grids. A steady breeze threatened to dislodge artwork until inventive organizers found a way to anchor paintings with a bit of packing tape.

The awards for the evening were dedicated to the memory of Doug Snow, who lived just down the road in Teasdale and whose work captured, usually in an abstracted way, the peaks, clouds, and colors of the beautifully rugged terrain of Capitol Reef and surrounding areas. Judges for the awards included Snow’s widow, Susan, and Frank McEntire, editor of the retrospective book on Doug Snow, Final Light: The Life and Art of V. Douglas Snow.

McEntire explained the criteria for the awards: “Mastery of the media and compositional elements; a clear message or theme; and something extra – an abstract quality that makes it stand out in the crowd.”

Before I reveal the winners, let me just say that participating artists were well aware of Doug Snow and his work. In fact, on Friday evening, we attended a gallery stroll at Torrey’s two fine art galleries, and we saw a wonderful collection of Snow paintings at the Torrey Gallery. Inspired by Snow’s very personal artistic response to this part of Utah, some artists attempted to “channel Doug Snow,” producing paintings, which, if not exactly Snow-like, were looser and more expressive than the artists’ usual work.

And the winner is (drum roll): Best of Show went to Sherry Meidell, a Signature USW member, as well as accomplished book illustrator. Ironically, Sherry almost didn’t put the award-winning painting in the show. Says Meidell, “It was in the back of my car. At the last minute I exchanged it for another smaller painting I was planning to exhibit.” Good decision, Sherry.

Second place went to Kristi Grussendorf; third prize to Linda Flannery; and honorable mention awards to Maggie Harrison, Jeanne Hansen, and Nena Flow Law. The nicest prize – for all artists – was that every artist sold at least one painting in the Saturday evening silent auction. Each artist donated one painting to Entrada Institute fundraising; other sales were split between Entrada and the artist.

Entrada, which provides cultural arts programming and education in Torrey for most of the year, announced during the plein air events that it has purchased the property just behind Robber’s Roost, including a three-level house on the property. The house will be used for workshops, while the rest of the property will eventually include a fully equipped performance stage and amphitheatre, artist and vendor booths, restrooms and showers. The fundraising officially kicks off this fall and the project is slated for completion in three years.

Marci Milligan, Entrada Board member and chief organizer of the plein air event, noted that “Our goal is to not only provide cultural arts but to be an economic driver for the county.” To that end, the activities they offer — arts, music, education — can “bookend” trips that people make to Capitol Reef and other attractions.

“For a very small place we have more cultural arts activities than many larger cities in the state,” says Milligan.  “And now it’s more of a year-round community with more stable businesses that are open all year.  I think we’ll see more artists coming when they can see that it’s year round, not a place where you have to struggle for three months to make it work.”

As for the Arts and the Park plein air competition, Milligan and Entrada’s President Carol Gnade promise that it will grow and expand over time, with classes and events for youth (also part of this year’s activities), invited teaching artists, and competition on several levels.

Despite the gnats, the UWS painters are eager to return. In the meantime, they will continue building their plein air skills with monthly paintouts closer to home. “I feel that there is nothing like working from life to really improve an artist’s skills, visual perception, and attention to what really matters in any work of art they may choose to make,” says Howard. “For the landscape painter, working en plein air is the only way to do that.”

Categories: Process Points | Visual Arts

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