Once in a Hundred Years: Painting the Rockies During the Parks Centennial

[Article appeared originally in Outdoor Painter]

This year, artists at Plein Air Rockies enjoyed the honor of painting the park during the exact centennial of the National Park Service on August 25. When a brief hailstorm forced me to take cover that day, I walked into a ranger station just in time to see a cake delivery and join in an enthusiastic singing of “Happy Birthday” to the National Parks.

The centennial celebrations reminded me of the critical role artists played in moving public will toward the parks’ creation. Thomas Moran’s name will always be associated with Yellowstone, while Charlie Russell painted Glacier from his lodge on McDonald Lake and Charles Partridge Adams explored the beauty of the Rockies from his studio in Estes Park. “I see you’re carrying on the tradition!” said one visitor when he saw my easel. (I had unknowingly set up just yards from a sign spelling out the entwined histories of artists and the parks.) It’s a rich legacy to carry on, and for me, painting in the park felt like the landscape artist’s equivalent of walking on hallowed ground.

 Kathleen B. Hudson painting at Timberline Falls. Photo by John Crandall

Kathleen B. Hudson painting at Timberline Falls. Photo by John Crandall

In honor of Adams, the Cultural Arts Council of Estes Park added another award to the lineup this year. Judges David Santillanes and Carol Jenkins chose Olena Babak’s “Moment of Enchantment” for the inaugural Charles Partridge Adams Award for a painting that best captures the character of the Rockies. Fittingly, Babak spent the first several days of the two-week event hiking instead of painting so that she could get to know the area. “So much of this place was a snapshot of everything I’d seen when hiking around,” said Babak. “The mountain ridge that you can see through the trees, the tall, candle-like sub-alpine ferns at different stages of their life cycle, the mountain river with numerous waterfalls and giant granite boulders … this place felt remote and pure with all of the distinct character of the Rockies.”

 “Moment of Enchantment,” by Olena Babak, 2016, oil, 20 x 16 in. Charles Partridge Adams Award

“Moment of Enchantment,” by Olena Babak, 2016, oil, 20 x 16 in. Charles Partridge Adams Award

I likewise found my favorite painting subject mid-hike — in the middle of a nine-mile hike, actually. I had seen some photos of Timberline Falls and decided to risk one of few fully thunderstorm-free painting days on my hope that it would yield a decent painting. I arrived at the falls, huffing and puffing a bit, and was not disappointed. In hindsight, I think the pressure of doing a longer hike with the painting gear actually served as a motivator for me. (I couldn’t go all the way there and make a dud, right?) On my hike back down I had to strap the painting to the outside of my pack and hope for the best. In the end, my gamble paid off; I was honored when “Bright Morning, Timberline Falls” was awarded Third Place and sold.

 Bright Morning, Timberline Falls,” by Kathleen B. Hudson, 2016, oil, 18 x 14 in. Third Place

Bright Morning, Timberline Falls,” by Kathleen B. Hudson, 2016, oil, 18 x 14 in. Third Place

Jason Sacran won Best of Show and People’s Choice for “Morning Magic,” a vivid, painterly interpretation of early sunlight on Adams Falls in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Sacran arrived with his family and had only a few days to paint, but — true to form — managed to pull together a stunner of a painting.

 Jason Sacran received Best of Show for "Morning Magic," 18 x 24, oil

Jason Sacran received Best of Show for "Morning Magic," 18 x 24, oil

Neal Hughes, who won both First Place and Artists’ Choice for his painting “Old Pine,” was en route to Sprague Lake when his subject grabbed his attention. “I guess you could say I was heading for a lake when this wizard-like tree cast a spell on me,” he said. “It was its age and the way that the gnarly branches are reaching out with a play of light, where they become negative and positive shapes, that made it interesting to me.”

 “Old Pine,” by Neal Hughes, 2016, oil, 16 x 20 in. First Place and Artists’ Choice

“Old Pine,” by Neal Hughes, 2016, oil, 16 x 20 in. First Place and Artists’ Choice

Second Place overall and Allen Award winner Lon Brauer made the most of his first time at Plein Air Rockies — in fact, it was his first time ever painting mountains. Like Hughes, Brauer found his muse for “House on the Rock” when he was on his way somewhere else. “I stumbled upon Ward, Colorado, on my way to another destination and ultimately spent the better half of a week painting there,” Brauer said. “I found the dwellings perched tenaciously on the hills similar to mountain goats holding on to a rock face.” Brauer emphasized a strong dark-light pattern in his composition. He sought to use “House on a Rock” to encapsulate his reading of Ward’s character: “I saw the mixture of architectural style as a visual metaphor for the eclectic personality and independent spirit of this delightful community.”

 “House on the Rock,” by Lon Brauer, 2016, oil, 20 x 20 in. Second Place and the Allen Award

“House on the Rock,” by Lon Brauer, 2016, oil, 20 x 20 in. Second Place and the Allen Award

In the Quick Draw, Jason Sacran won First Place, Neal Hughes won Second, and Michael Clark took Third. Larry DeGraff won Best Miniature.