Creativity out in the open
Artist Stephen C. Datz recently went window shopping on Grand Mesa but instead of a new pair of shoes or even a new set of paintbrushes, Datz drove Colorado Highway 65 looking for one thing: an idyllic autumn scene to paint “en plein air.”
“En plein air” is a French expression that means painting in the open air, and it has been Datz’s preferred method of working since he took a 1995 workshop with artist Skip Whitcomb to learn the art of plein air painting with oil.
“That was a life-changer,” Datz said.
As a landscape oil painter, Datz, 44, has found that living in western Colorado gives him easy access to incalculable locations with any combination of vibrant color, rugged mountainsides or quiet streams.
At approximately 8 a.m. Monday, Sept. 24, Datz packed up his Toyota Tacoma and left his Fruita home to drive over a soaked Grand Mesa with the specific purpose of finding an autumnal scene to paint off Highway 65 where the gold and orange hues of an aspen stand popped against an overcast sky.
“It’s about as much fun as being a kid in the candy store,” Datz said.
He didn’t have a specific location in mind because he doesn’t plan his plein air trips. In his opinion, planning would eliminate the spontaneity he wants to ensure the emotion of the day is translated on the canvas.
So he started the day by window shopping, looking at a number of locations on Grand Mesa, uncertain of what he wanted in a scene until he saw it.
“It’s not enough to go out and see exciting color,” Datz said. “I’m trying to figure out what’s the story I want to tell. I want to describe the character of the day. It’s a gray, rainy day. The painting should reflect that.”
Up and down Datz drove the highway, scanning the same stretch of highway once, twice, sometimes three or four times, looking for the perfect scene to paint while trying to dodge the rain that got heavier the higher he climbed.
“Welcome to the glamorous world of plein air painting,” Datz said, as he circled between two pullouts. “This is the blessing and the curse of autumn. I see so much.”
About 10 a.m., nearly two hours after leaving his home, Datz pulled off just above Powderhorn Mountain Resort and pointed toward an area where several aspens shared space with evergreens and grasses no more than 30 feet off the highway. In the background, purples, golds and deep greens blanketed a mountainside. The sky was cloudy but the rain had subsided.
Datz pulled a paint-stained backpack and tripod from his truck.
It was all he needed.
In the backpack were his brushes — but he only used one — a miniature 6-by-8-inch canvas and his pochade box, a portable, compact box containing all his oil paints.
When flipped open, the pochade box offered a spot where he could mix his oils on one side, and a mount for his canvas on the other.
He secured the pochade box on the tripod and hung a used grocery bag for garbage on one side of the tripod and a small cup with his paint thinner on the other.
Setting up took less than five minutes. Datz didn’t bother turning on music or turning up lights. The sound of birds calling and leaves rustling served as the soundtrack. Lighting came from the hidden sun.
“As frustrating as it can be sitting in a car waiting for the rain to go away, it has an element of adventure and spontaneity,” Datz said, pleased to be out of the truck.
He painted for nearly two hours.
First, he blocked in the shapes of distant mountains and the closest trees, using a muted red that he brushed on in a nearly indiscernible way and looked more like Japanese symbols than trees.
Then, he began to combine yellow, blue, orange and green paint into several different combinations to use for the trees.
On the longer strokes, his tongue came out. It’s a sign of concentration he has tried to curtail unsuccessfully, he said.
On shorter strokes, his brush barely grazed the canvas.
Nearly 30 minutes after Datz started painting, the sun peeked through the clouds. He felt it before he saw it and immediately rotated his canvas to face the sun. The white canvas and glossy, white palette send off an intolerable glare unless he shields them, he said.
For the next two hours, Datz glanced at his inspiration then back at his canvas as shapes began to take form. The reds placed down at the beginning were buried beneath other layers of oil paint.
“Without a good idea, it’s paint on canvas,” Datz said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but the painting that keeps you coming back is the one with an idea behind it. The best paintings are the ones you can keep seeing fresh things in.”
He talked while he painted. He doesn’t have a favorite color. He does have two favorite times of year to paint: autumn and winter. He may paint “en plein air” two or three times a week at the height of those seasons. His favorite places to paint? The drainage areas of the San Juan Mountains, the area around Crested Butte and along U.S. Highway 550 toward Durango.
Then, he swallowed a bug. There was a swarm near his head and one took advantage of his open mouth while answering questions.
It’s part of painting outdoors, Datz said, coughing it out. Insects are drawn to his oil paints. Bees, in particular, love the reds and yellows, he said.
Shortly after noon, Datz finally got to painting the gray sky. It was the last thing he painted. It was essential he find the right gray to convey the mood, he said.
“Even on a day like today, there’s an emotion,” he said. “I enjoy that emotional connection.”
Satisfied with his work, Datz grabbed a blunted wooden tool to create aspen trunks, then signed the painting. He signs every piece, even if it will never make it to a gallery.
Plein air painting is a chance for him to explore his world, experimenting with color, composition and shapes, so he doesn’t expect every piece to hang on someone’s wall.
“The whole idea of plein air painting is process-oriented, not product-oriented,” he said.
Whether he leaves a location with a gallery-ready plein air painting or nothing more than an experiment, Datz has spent several hours outdoors doing the thing he loves most.
“This is the best office in the world,” he said with a smile.