The Texas landscape is difficult to summarize. Its mountains rise tall, its canyons drop deep. It boasts red dirt, beach sand and limestone; mesquites, oaks and longleaf pines. Rivers, beaches and lakes; hills, plains and desert. When words fail to contain it, art succeeds.
For generations, artists have documented the landscape of the state, capturing its essence with vibrant pastels, soft watercolors and luxuriant oils. The specific practice of painting en plein air, French for “in open air,” is a tradition that allows the artist to engage with and respond to the natural world. Events such as San Angelo’s annual EnPleinAirTexas also allow art appreciators to engage in the creative process by observing artists at work.
During EnPleinAirTexas in 2015, San Angelo-area rancher Gretchen Noelke observed artist Patrick Saunders working at his easel. “Several of his paintings really said something to me,” Noelke recalls. The next year during EnPleinAirTexas, she invited Saunders to paint on her ranch, which has been in her family for more than 160 years.
Saunders headed out to Noelke’s ranch expecting to paint cattle. Instead, he found a natural scene—a tree looming over a draw—that inspired him.
“If it’s a good plein air painting, the viewer not only sees the scene that you’ve painted, but they get a sense of the actual experience that you had with that subject,” Saunders says. The artist’s reaction to a fast-moving storm or a brilliant sunset will be expressed in the way the paint is applied, he explains. “It is about the emotion that comes from being right there,” he says.
En plein air is not a style of painting, explains Donald Demers, the 2019 EnPleinAirTexas awards judge. Rather, it is a discipline that dates back to the 1500s. “Styles range far and wide,” Demers says, noting that the best-known practitioners were French impressionists.
EnPleinAirTexas is a juried competition that, in its seventh year, is the state’s largest. More than 150 artists from across the country apply to compete, but only 30 individuals are selected to join the previous year’s winners to work in San Angelo for the week. Four winners receive cash prizes totaling $20,000. The event, October 18–25 this year, includes opportunities for visitors to watch the artists painting at sites around San Angelo. At the end of the week, the paintings go up for sale, and 40% of sales support the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts.
Barbara Rallo, an artist and event co-chair, was inspired to start EnPleinAirTexas after her travels to similar events. “When you paint outside, your eye sees more,” Rallo says. A shadow that appears black in a photograph appears to be a combination of colors when you’re outside, she says. “Painting outdoors actually trains you to be a better artist, even if you continue to paint in your studio.”
Saunders explains that visitors and collectors get very excited about the event because they will see paintings that are about their lives and about their environment. “When you see a painting being created, you suddenly feel like you were a part of that creation experience,” he says.
EnPleinAirTexas continues a legacy that began decades ago. The Texas Artists Camp in Christoval, 20 miles south of San Angelo, was the first major plein air artist event in Texas. The camp, founded by local bluebonnet painter Mollie Crowther, was active 1921–1927. In those seven years, the camp attracted the state’s top artists.
Howard Taylor, director of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, says that in America, landscapes became a major subject of paintings in the last half of the 19th century. During those years, artists turned their attention away from religious and historical subjects.
“Landscape has been very much more important in America than other countries because they had history, yet we had the grandeur of nature,” says Taylor.
Saunders is one of the many artists documenting the grandeur of Texas. He painted Gretchen’s Oasis that day on Noelke’s ranch, and she purchased it.
“I bought it so I can give it to my grandchildren,” she says, “and they can see what the ranch means to their grandmother.”
Brenda Kissko is a native Texan who writes about nature, travel and our relationship with land. Visit her online at brendakissko.com.