Plein Air: Leadville

The romance of painting is a relatively recent invention.

Outpaced by digital art, video art, and ever-newer forms of expression, traditional painting can feel like a self-important and niche enterprise. Almost every artist I've met tells the story of having that one curmudgeonly professor in art school who claims that 'painting is the one true art!' Every student's job in art school is to rebel against this curmudgeon and do something, anything, oh god, except painting. 

Yet, painting was once even more exclusive and closed off from the general world than it is now. Before the innovation of the aluminum paint tube around 1850, the demands of producing paintings forced painters to stay in a dark studio all day and grind materials into powdered pigment, load the pigment with medium, and finally, after hours of meticulous, tiresome chemistry, paint. 

Once the aluminum paint tube was invented, painters gained the freedom to venture into the world and embark on painting landscapes en plein air, or 'out in the open.' Without the aluminum tubes, their paint would dry and become unusable in the sunlight. Painting's sudden extroversion, with artists being out in the world among people, ultimately made art better and it created paintings that illuminated the world. 

So, artists have only had about 150 years of being able to paint wherever we want to - and it's already a bit passé to do so. There are easier and better ways to make art. All of us have spraypaint now, or iPads. Permanent art can happen anywhere! 

Yet, sitting in my studio in Houston, I was starting to feel a bit like one of those pre-1850s artists in a dark room. Working alone, cut off from the world and my subjects, staring at low-res stock art computer images of the mountains that wanted to paint, I decided - why not just go find the mountains myself? 

I booked a flight to my hometown, Leadville, a place that I knew was beautiful enough to provide tons of plein air adventures. Here is the full journey I embarked on, and some of the challenges and thoughts I encountered while creating paintings en plein air. 

Below is a map of the greater Leadville area and each location where I painted during the trip. 



Day 1: Halfmoon Creek

Halfmoon Creek, a favorite campsite for locals and tourists alike, provided excellent views of Mt. Elbert over a small river. Finding accurate footing and enough space on the riverbank was the key to getting this painting spot all set up. 

I'd forgotten how dry in general Colorado can be - dust rippled up from the ground and pollen washed off of the pine trees. For a few moments I worried that I'd be making a beautiful painting, only to have it be spattered with dust.

Here I am painting at Halfmoon Creek near Leadville! 

Here I am painting at Halfmoon Creek near Leadville! 

Fortunately everything worked out okay. It may also be worth mentioning that at the time of the photo above being taken, my feet were covered with ants (they were super confused and had never seen a painter's feet before). It was all good, I had to forgive the ants in order to make the painting. 

Below is the second painting I created during the session.

The biggest challenge here involved retaining purity of color in the paint and not allowing the colors to get muddy - something that oil paint happens to do very commonly when you use paint this thick! 

I brought turpenoid and used it to clean brushes and keep colors pure. At the end of the session I sealed up the turpenoid and took it home to throw it away. Dumping paint chemicals into a mountain stream would be excessively evil and intrusive, given that Leadville is the headwaters of much of the states. 

The other challenge I realized right away on the first day was:  "How do I get this completed painting to a safe place?" While I had my trusty easel, one thing I didn't have was a portable drying rack, or a container that would safely hold a completed, still-wet painting. I ended up shuffling completed paintings through a maze of willows - its a miracle any of the paintings made it back home unscathed.

Day 2: St Kevan's Road


On the second day of my trip, recent fires in New Mexico caused the mountains of Leadville to become nearly invisible. The sun turned bright red in the sky, creating a ghostly, disorientingly orange daylight. Since painting mountains was impossible with the smoke, I painted a small creekbed on St. Kevan’s road. Nobody else was out there except a couple dirtbikers - I figured I'd see a couple people training for the Leadville Trail 100 bike race, since the path alongside this stream is one of the most infamous moments of the race. But I didn't see anyone! 

I decided to paint the creek as if it had never been polluted by mining. Although the creek may not look too unusual in the photographs, in-person it gleams with an unnatural brass color, due to the minerals extracted from the nearby terrain. 

Painting the true creek, pollution and all, would have been a good challenge, but I just couldn't keep myself from using blue and green. 

Day 3: Busk Creek

On day three I painted at Busk Creek, a rushing whitewater stream that falls off the high mountains and churns into Turquoise Lake. 

Busk Creek was the opposite of the St. Kevan's road creek - no pollution, no rust colors, with brilliant foliage all around it. Everything on Busk Creek just thrived, from willows, to lichens, to underwater river moss. Painting the stones of the river and how the water moved around each surface provided an interesting challenge, and created a good composition overall. Rivers without boulders can feel a little flat in a painting - Busk Creek was anything but boring! 

While en route to the painting site, we also found a few fairy slipper orchids, a rare mountain flower. I snapped a few photos to paint later. 

Day 4: Mineral Belt Trail 

On day four I painted on top of a mining tailings pile near the Mineral Belt Trail, capturing the greater Leadville valley. I had time to make two small paintings before the wind came up at about 11 AM, and I had to take down the easel. 

By this time, all of the smoke from the fires in New Mexico had cleared from the valley, and the trees and mountains were as vivid as ever!

Of all the paintings I made during the trip I was most happy with this one above - it seemed to capture the wild undulations of the land in a way that I hadn't quite been able to nail down with paintings that were too close to the mountain.

On the final day I touched up my paintings while at home in Leadville, using photographs to recall spruce arrangements, rock formations, and other characteristics of each painting site. Painting in plein air solved the loneliness problem I was having white in my studio, and it helped remove the sense of distance in my paintings. Ultimately, plein air brings a painting's viewer closer to the world of the painting - something that any artist would want.

While painting out in the wilderness I thought of these words from David Hockney on the Removal of Distance, and the intimacy of painting near a subject. For Hockney/Picasso this was applied towards figures, and I can see how it works for landscapes as well : 

Here is how my painting supplies looked at the beginning of the trip: 

And finally, here is how the neat and tidy paints ended up looking at the end of the trip! Well used and well-loved. 


Thanks for reading and catch you next time!