Bonnie McGee points out nuances in the landscape she aims to capture while plein air painting this summer at the Yampa River. McGee is one of four founding members of a new group, the Steamboat Springs Plein Air Painters, which aims to foster the growth of an outdoor painting culture in Steamboat. The four will present their work at a September art show at the Artists' Gallery of Steamboat.

Photo by Nicole Inglis

Bonnie McGee points out nuances in the landscape she aims to capture while plein air painting this summer at the Yampa River. McGee is one of four founding members of a new group, the Steamboat Springs Plein Air Painters, which aims to foster the growth of an outdoor painting culture in Steamboat. The four will present their work at a September art show at the Artists' Gallery of Steamboat.

Steamboat Plein Air Painters have eye, brushes for the outdoors

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Plein air painting in Steamboat combines artistic expression and the scenic backdrop of the Yampa Valley.

— On the banks of the Yampa River on a cloudy day, Bonnie McGee lightly dabbed browns, greens and reds onto a canvas resting on a mobile easel. For 13 years, the local painter has been taking her art into the great outdoors, and the Yampa Valley offers the perfect setting.

“What we’re painting is the light on objects,” McGee said about plein air painting. But it's not always that simple. “There’s bugs, rain, wind, sunshine and the light is constantly changing.”

Battling the elements in sometimes remote locations means plein air painting is an inherently social activity.

McGee and three other local artists — Dancy Gould St. John, Susan Corser and Susan Gill Jackson — have known one another for about a decade and often go on “paint-outs” together to capture Yampa Valley scenes on canvas.

“It’s so much easier to show up, really, when you know there’s other people that are going to be there,” St. John said. “You learn so much from being around other people and seeing how they handle a scene.”

The quartet, most of whom were involved in founding the Artists’ Gallery of Steamboat, recently launched the new Steamboat Springs Plein Air Painters group, a small collective that aims to foster the growth of outdoor painting in the Yampa Valley.

McGee said the group plans to offer a collective for professional artists in the valley, but there will be associate memberships and open paint-outs available for plein air painters of all levels.

“I hope it creates just a little bit of a buzz about all the people that are out painting here,” St. John said. “We’re doing it for the camaraderie and the networking between all of us.”

Signature memberships for professionals will be juried by the founding members, who hope to produce a full show in 2013.

But before then, the work of the four founding members will hang in the small works gallery of the Artists’ Gallery of Steamboat in September to introduce their work to the community. The show opens Sept. 7 during First Friday Artwalk.

McGee said the organization of the group comes at a time when plein air painting is rising in popularity across the country with plein air competitions, paint-outs and quick draw contests.

“People are seeing it as a performance art,” McGee said.

St. John said that most of the plein air painting she does comes from scenes within five miles of her house — a perk of living in a valley that many plein air painters come to visit. Sometimes, the four women will hike with their portable easels up Mount Werner or to Sarvis Creek. Other times, St. John said, she’ll be inspired simply to pull over her car and paint.

Like many plein air artists, St. John uses plein air to create small studies, then returns to her studio to paint the larger works that are hung in art galleries.

But there’s nothing quite like the rush of an outdoor painting session.

“You’re out on location, and you’re chasing light, and you’re chasing the sky,” St. John said.

To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com

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