Saturday, August 23, 2014

Rocky Mountain Plein Air Festival: An Epic Challenge

I'm having a great time here in Estes Park, Colorado participating in the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Festival. Rocky Mountain National Park is a National Park in the grand old style. It's the high country where the light changes fast and the views are breathtaking. 

Painting up here presents a special challenge as I try to capture this amazing place in its best light. We hiked up to Alberta Falls, and on the way passed through a stunning Aspen grove. With the light streaming down through the leaves, the place was magical. That's where I stopped to do my first piece for the festival: 

Richard Lance Russell painting en plein air
Richard Lance Russell painting en plein airOn The Edge of Evening by Richard Lance Russell

 When you're painting plein air, you have a limited amount of time to finish your painting, because the light changes as the sun moves across the sky and whatever you are painting looks completely different in a couple of hours.

That is something many people don't notice. Changes in light influence the color of what you are seeing, the contrast between it and everything around it, and the shadows that fall on and around it. Naturally, for a realistic painter like myself, plein air paintings are necessarily small so that they can be finished before the light changes.

But when I arrived here and saw Rocky Mountain National Park towering around me, I knew I was going to have to give myself a particular challenge. Though my small canvasses worked great for the small, intimate portraits of the landscape like the aspen grove (above), the front range (which is a row of incredible 12- and 14-THOUSAND foot peaks) is an epic view. In order to capture it like I really wanted to, I had to have a large canvas.

So I got up before dawn, set up in time to see the first light, and undertook the creation of an 18" x 36" painting of the front range:

Richard Lance Russell Plein Air Painting

And it was a challenge. But it was also exhilarating to race the sun and complete the piece:

Richard Lance Russell Plein Air Painting
Richard Lance Russell with First Light On The Front Range Painting

Here it is:

First Light On The Front Range painting by Richard Lance Russell

And people really responded to this piece. It was as if the spirit of this bold and rugged place came through to viewers. The piece sold quickly, and tonight at the awards ceremony I received The City of Estes Park Award:

Awards Ceremony Plein Air Rockies Richard Lance Russell

Everybody loves a big blue ribbon, right? This piece was a huge undertaking, and it tested my limits as a painter. Maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much. 

I actually completed many paintings up here and learned something new from each one. I'll show you some more of them in future posts.


  1. Awesome job! This was fun to read about! Congrats!

  2. It can't be easy to paint so rapidly in changing light. Good show!

  3. Through inventory and monitoring of Rocky Mountain National Park resources, scientists create baselines by which to judge changes to ecosystems over time. Rocky Mountain Air