Extreme Plein Air Painting with Aaron Schuerr

Landscape artist Aaron Schuerr (www.aaronschuerr.com) is not a fair-weather painter. The plein air devotee goes outdoors to paint in every season of the year, including winter, which—in his home state of Montana—can require some serious fortitude, not to mention gear. (Ever traveled by snow coach?) Nevertheless, Schuerr feels strongly that this practice of painting on location is all part of what he brings to his stirring portrayals of the Rocky Mountain West.

In an interview in the February 2010 issue of The Pastel Journal, the artist talks about the particular pleasures and challenges of painting on location in weather conditions that would keep most of us at home in front of the fireplace.

Here, in this gallery of pastel paintings (painted in the studio from field studies done in oils), Aaron Schuerr described the specific inspirations behind each piece:


"Snow Patterns" by Aaron Schuerr | Plein Air Painting

“Snow Patterns” (pastel, 16×20) by Aaron Schuerr

The above pastel resulted from the craziest painting session that I have experienced. I had taken a ride in a snow coach with a friend to Indian Creek, in Yellowstone National Park. In the afternoon, a blizzard hit. The snow coach wasn’t returning for us for a few hours, so I painted through the storm. By the end, snow had filled my palette, and I had to melt the snow with the turpentine to get down to the paint. Snow also stuck to the painting, until I could only see the dim outline of a painting. The study dried with little snow dimples on it! Back in the studio I decided a pastel would be worth a try. The pastel painting took me forever. I kept brushing the trees and willows back down and reworking them. I really wanted to show the diminishing values and drained color as the hills disappear into the sky. In a piece like this, too much detail takes away from the airiness, so I had to be really careful. Perhaps the biggest challenge was the diagonal snow, trying to get the feeling of movement. These “simple” compositions are so difficult!


"Spring Snow" by Aaron Schuerr | Plein Air Painting

“Spring Snow” (pastel, 18×24) by Aaron Schuerr

We had a long winter this year, with the first snowstorm in early October. I did the study for the pastel above on April 1. I ran out to paint after a heavy wet storm, thinking this might be my last snow study of the winter. Hardly! It snowed off and on all the way into June! This piece further exemplifies the challenge of simplicity. It took me over an hour to get the block-in right on the oil study. I thought of the light patch near the top edge of the creek as a highlight on a still life and tried to get some optical “buzz” with a touch of light blue-green on top of the yellow. I saved those colors for that one spot, and darkened the snow above it just a touch.

"Yellowstone River Ice" by Aaron Schuerr | Plein Air Painting

“Yellowstone River Ice” (pastel, 18×24) by Aaron Schuerr

It was a cold winter! The ice built up in great blocks along the Yellowstone River. I was amazed at all the color in the ice and snow, even on an overcast afternoon. Trees that might appear drab in isolation make a nice warm note against all the blues in the rest of the painting. I stood on the ice and marveled at this unique spot. It was just plain fun to paint the study for this pastel.



"Moonrise Over Teton Flats" by Aaron Schuerr | Plein Air Painting

“Moonrise Over Teton Flats” (pastel, 10×12) by Aaron Schuerr

I took a trip to Grand Teton National Park in early May. I thought it would be a spring painting trip, but I was mistaken; the snow was four feet deep in places and the mercury dropped to 17 degrees! I painted for three days, cooked from a backpacking stove, and slept in my van. I call this my “dirtbag painting adventures.” I had painted three studies that day, starting just after sunrise, and though I was thrilled to see the moonrise, I was too tired and cold to paint it. I took pictures and did this pastel study in the studio. I remember the outrageous colors the snow took on, and I wanted to get that. I’m planning a large piece from this study.

"Winter's Return" by Aaron Schuerr | Plein Air Paintings

Winter’s Return (pastel, 18×24) by Aaron Schuerr

I was in full retreat after painting for three days with a friend. It was May and it was snowing hard. Even I know when it’s not possible to paint! I cobbled this pastel together from a few photos. Painting on location helps me to evaluate photos and understand what is inaccurate in them. I love the mystery of hills disappearing into a storm. And the patterns of willows lend a shock of color that lasts through the whole winter.




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