If you’ve walked around town this week, you’ve probably seen painters poised at their easels around the dancing fountain and peppered on downtown street corners, or maybe you’ve seen them working roadside on McLain Flats or lakeside at the Maroon Bells.
The outdoor artist invasion is the result of Aspen Plein Air. Now in its fifth year, Plein Air brings 15 selected artists to town to paint in the outdoors — capturing local scenes and scenery. They were chosen by a jury from a national field of about 130.
Artists arrived in Aspen and began painting Sunday. They’ll begin showing off and selling the work they’ve created today.
Events include a “quick draw” painting competition on the mall this afternoon and a reception at the Red Brick Center for the Arts this evening, where artists vote on their favorite pieces among the new work. Friday through the weekend, artists will set up shop on the Mill Street mall to exhibit the work they’ve created here. At the Aspen Saturday Market, artists will provide painting demonstrations.
The event is modeled after the Plein Air event in Telluride, where the Sheridan Opera House has run the outdoor painting exhibition for 11 years. The Sheridan has partnered with the Wheeler Opera House for the Aspen rendition for the past five years, and the Red Brick Center for the Arts got on board for the first time this summer. Proceeds of sales benefit those organizations for local arts programming. In Telluride, Plein Air has become the opera house’s biggest annual fundraiser.
Aspen is not lacking for artists or art galleries, of course. But Plein Air artists said they aim to create something you can’t find in the innumerable downtown shops.
“The thing about the show is that most galleries in town don’t carry local scenes,” painter Douglas Morgan said. “So this show offers something you’re not going to find anywhere else. It allows the collector or visitor to purchase a local scene at an affordable price.”
Morgan, of the San Francisco Bay Area, is here for his fourth Aspen Plein Air tour. He’s taken part in the Telluride event for a decade, and he is among the most popular artists in both towns. His favorite local subjects, he said, are the downtown pedestrian malls in the morning and the evening when they are bathed in shadows.
Paul Jerzensky, of Texas, has painted Alderfer Antiques on Main Street, the Hotel Jerome and a scene on the Fryingpan River. Juan Pena, of Colfax, California, set up his easel on Main Street to paint the Annabelle Inn on Tuesday. He’s the lone watercolorist among the Plein Air team this year, crafting large-scale watercolor canvases and trying to capture street scenes. He said Tuesday that he expects to complete five paintings while he’s here.
On Tuesday evening, gathered with fellow paint-spattered artists at Justice Snow’s, Morgan said the Plein Air event demands artistic skills along with some salesmanship. Passers-by often ask what painters are up to, and he said it’s up to the artists to make a sales pitch then and there.
“Most people don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to spend $975 on a painting of Aspen today,’” he said. “So you do have to sell them.”
And, he added, painting outdoors is a test for most artists — dealing with changing light, along with flies and cottonwood in their paint. He forces his students at the Academy of Art in San Francisco to go outside and work, he said.
“Artists need to go outside and paint to understand natural color, shadow and light,” he said. “If you paint from a photograph, you paint flat.”