Claude Monet had his frustrations with painting nature. "It's enough to drive you crazy, trying to depict the weather, the atmosphere, the ambience," he once said. "It seems to me that when I see nature I see it ready-made, completely written—but then, try to do it!"
Hard to feel too bad for the guy. Monet managed to get the whole plein air thing down well enough: the 1868 "On the Bank of the Seine," with its blue-green glow; the 1865 "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe," where four sharply dressed men and women settle into a picnic in the woods; or the 1875 "Les bateaux rouges, Argenteuil," where red boats sit in dreamy lily-pad waters.
The tradition of painting in the open air exploded in the 1870s and never really died out. That it's crossed borders into Russia and made its way to the Americas only speaks to the allure of the experience, no matter what your native tongue. Painting in the open air means you have an immediate connection with the landscape—you feel the weather, take in the smells and sounds and try to capture those dynamics in a visual way. Natural light gives a different sheen and fluidity than studio light.
In Missoula, the Dana Gallery has been getting into the spirit of it for 10 years. Artists from around Montana and the nation—many of whom are represented by the Dana Gallery—travel to Missoula to paint ranch and farmlands, stark stretches of prairie, train yards, street life with traffic lights glowing red and green, wildflower-brushed mountains still topped with winter snow.
Dudley Dana, owner of the highly acclaimed gallery, says that he's not trying to be dramatic, but the plein air paint out he's held since 2002 is vital to the gallery, which started out as a small photography gallery in 1996 and has since blown up to be one of the top painting galleries in the region.
"I actually think the paint out is the reason we're even here," he says. "If we hadn't done the paint out, we probably wouldn't even be in business."
Plein air shows happen everywhere, but Dana added his own touch when he started what's called the "purchase awards." People can commit money to the show—some pay $500, some pay $2,000 or more—which makes them eligible for a tiered lottery where they'll get to choose from the 100 or so plein air paintings created during the week-long paint out and keep one. Whoever draws first, picks first, which makes for some suspense and excitement, and sometimes disappointment if you get your favorite painting snapped out from under you.
This year, artists will be traveling from the usual nooks of Montana, plus Kentucky, Texas, Chicago, California, Idaho and Oregon. The last few years, painters spent time at the farmers' markets, capturing the social vibrancy and color from overflowing tables of fruits and vegetables. And it's interesting for the market-goers to watch. "It's kind of magical for people to see a canvas start out with nothing and grow into something in not that long a period of time," says Dana.
Most years, painters also go up to Ovando—a hot spot for painting, where ranchers welcome the artists into their homes and onto their properties.
"We don't structure everything, because that's what makes it fun. We can suggest that people go out to ranches. And then the last couple of years we've tried to keep them in town the first couple of days. But it's like herding ants," he says, laughing.
The paint out coincides with the Missoula Marathon this year, and Dana hopes to get the painters scattered throughout town to illuminate the crowds and runners, the peripheral happenings. He wants to exhibit those paintings during next year's marathon. This year also marks the first time the painters will gather together on First Friday and create a mural on a canvas together in the Dana Gallery as art show-goers look on. How does that work? Dana considers the question, and says, "I don't know," with a hint of wonderment. We'll just have to see.
One painter to look out for this year is Lori McNee, whose still lifes of birds—magpies, ravens and hummingbirds—are often indoors. The oil renderings show birds perched on ceramics, books, vases, lemonade pitchers and other table-top items. They're rich browns, glowing golds, bluebird blues. You may have seen some of them in the Dana Gallery's recent exhibit Icons of the West. Her landscapes are similar to her birds. Seaweed green waters reflect a boat on the shore. Mist covers a river flanked by red willows.
McNee currently ranks 27th on the list of Top 100 Most Powerful Women on Twitter. She appears to be an art business guru who appeals to followers through lists and warm, cheesy quotes about life and art and love. But it all seems to work. On her Art Business & Fine Art Tips website, her post titles are things like "How to Become an Eco-Friendly Artist," "5 Ways I Use Instagram to Boost My Art Business" and "DIY: Build an Art Gallery Hanging System for Around $100."
McNee and the other 20 artists will arrive in town Friday, and you'll be able to catch them on the streets and in the countryside for several days after, painting their hearts out. Their paintings will go up at the Dana Gallery July 12, with an official opening reception in August. But it's the plein air process this week that should entice you outdoors. Plein air's for everyone. And as Dr. Seuss once said, "It's opener out there in the wide, open air."
The 10th annual Western Montana Plein Air Paint Out opens at the Dana Gallery Friday, July 6, at 5 PM for a reception where 20 painters live paint a mural. Free.