At 5 a.m. on a recent Saturday, Kalispell painter Nicholas Oberling wasn’t just awake, he was working. Thanks to a hefty dose of caffeine and sugar, he had already driven through the private gates of the Stock Farm Club, just east of Hamilton, with its pristine views of the Bitterroot Valley. He set up at the side of the road with his oil paints, a canvas and his favorite classical music playing through the window of his truck. Just as the sun started to rise, Oberling started to paint.
“This is the best way to get out in nature, and nature is the best teacher,” said Oberling, one of 22 painters who participated in the Dana Gallery’s third annual Paint Out. “I work a lot from imagination, and the majority of my work is created in the studio, but nature provides you a lot more to learn from.”
Oberling was among the first to reach the Stock Farm, but a few hours later the roads of the palatial private grounds had artists sprawled all over—a truck or SUV parked by the side of the road was a sign that a painter was situated nearby, working to capture a particular view of the landscape.
The practice of painting outdoors utilizing natural light is called plein air painting. The form gained popularity in the mid-1800s as part of the French Barbizon school of landscape painting and was an important part of the impressionistic movement. Still popular today, plein air painting provides significant challenges to artists as they work within the elements to better capture the elements—away from the comforts of their studios—and complete the works on the spot with little or no additional alteration; Oberling and the others in the Paint Out had their early-morning pieces placed on display at the clubhouse at the Stock Farm, an event sponsor, later the same afternoon.
“You get complacent in an air-conditioned studio,” said Missoula artist R. Tom Gilleon, situated in a shaded spot on the opposite end of the 32,000-acre grounds from Oberling. “There’s something about being bitten by an ant that stimulates your artistic creativity.”
Gilleon was only half-joking. The challenges of working outside—ants and other bugs, the heat beating down, blowing breezes, the light and shadows steadily changing—force the artists to completely change their approach to painting.
“The atmosphere shifts so rapidly that you have to focus on stating the essential, however it is you see it, before it goes away,” said Gilleon, who works in an abstract style both in the studio and in plein air painting. “In the scene that you like, if it can move, it will move. So you must get to the essence of it fast.”
Oberling agreed, noting that it’s a challenge for most painters not to want to focus on the details and “nail it down,” as they typically would working in their studio over weeks, months, or even years on just one piece. He refers to a plein air painting as a sketch.
“The idea is to simplify and not be overwhelmed by the surroundings,” said Oberling, who finished his first landscape by 8:30 a.m. and was already starting a second by 9. “There’s so much out there that you want to use, but if you choose to paint everything you’d be in trouble. You’d end up in mud, always changing and adding as the day changes. You have to have an image in your head based on what you see, and always work toward that image.”
One of the best parts of the process, according to the artists, is settling on the landscape they want to paint. Gilleon chose his subject based on a natural frame between two trees. Artist Laurie Stevens set up near Gilleon but faced the opposite direction so she could capture the trees against the perspective of the Bitterroot Mountains. Sheila Reiman, an artist from North Dakota working with pastels, preferred an opening isolated from almost everyone else, shielded by a stack of hay bales far off the main road.
“When I came here this morning, nobody was here,” she explains. “It was just me and the crows.”
Creating work on the spot is not ideal for everyone. Mary Carlton, a landscape and figure artist from Suquamish, Wash., and her friend and colleague Parvin, from Seattle, positioned themselves on a sun-soaked ridge overlooking the stables of the Stock Farm. Carlton worked with oil paints on a traditional small canvas, 8 by 10 inches, but Parvin stretched out on a blanket working on an atypical scale of 30 x 40. Parvin worked with acrylics (which dry fast, but even more so in outdoor heat) instead of oils or pastels. Neither artist prefers working outside, but both accepted the invitation from Dudley Dana and the Dana Gallery to participate.
“I hate it,” said Carlton, who later asked if Montana is always this hot. “It’s very different. I’m not used to it at all. In a studio, you have everything right there at your fingertips, in its place, and here it takes 10,000 minutes just to get started.”
Parvin, who like Carlton usually works from photographs and memory in her studio, was a bit more balanced as she wrestled her large-scale canvas into position under a beach umbrella protecting her and her equipment from the sun.
“It’s a mixed bag,” she said. “The inspiration is there—it’s all right in front of us—and the setting is beautiful. But not having the comforts of your studio is a challenge. You know, there’s no temperature control out here.”
Dana hopes to see more participation by plein air novices like Carlton and Parvin in the emerging annual event, which this year included artists from across Montana as well as from Canada, Washington, Oregon and North Dakota. He’s determined to diversify and nationalize the Paint Out, and he’s excited about the opportunity to mesh diverse styles and talents in a plein air event. In addition to their time at the Stock Farm, the artists will spend a day at the Meredith and Wilson ranches near the Blackfoot, and two days at various locations around Missoula. Their results will be on display at the Dana Gallery beginning Friday, Aug. 5. To help illustrate the spectrum of the artist’s work, Dana asked each artist to display two studio pieces alongside the plein air paintings created this week.
“The neat thing is you’d think there was kind of a competitive nature when you bring all of these artists together, but it doesn’t happen like that,” says Dana. “They really enjoy and learn from other painters.”
Gilleon feels his style is perfect for plein air painting. As he explained his first work of the day, his gestures were animated and his voice rose as he showed how his eyes see the landscape in front of him. Asked if a great work can really be created in a matter of hours, he laughed.
“It takes about 35 years,” he said, in reference to practice and study, “and then two hours to create a great painting.”
The Paint Out Exhibition will be on display at the Dana Gallery for First Friday on Aug. 5, starting at 5 PM.