During an annual plein air painting event, Robert Moore, the Idaho artist, was inside working on a piece too large to take out in the woods — an 8-foot canvas.
Besides escaping the smoke, it gave him a chance to explain how he translates all the detail of a landscape scene into the dynamic impressionist paintings he’s known for.
“I don’t have to describe everything,” he said. “All I have to make sure of is that it’s harmonious, and it’s clear information where it is in space. Then I’ll focus the viewer’s attention where I want.”
Moore was in town for the 19th annual Plein Air Paint Out! at the Dana Gallery, which is marking its 25th anniversary. Ten artists are participating, and while most are outside, Moore choose the front window space, aiming to complete a large work in a two-day sprint.
The canvas is laid on a revolving tray set atop two folding tables. On another table is a large-screen TV displaying a photograph he took in Central Idaho — a forested mountain scene, popping with yellow aspen leaves, displayed courtesy of a nearby laptop which had a number of keys smudged with green and purple oil paint.
He had a small cart with a glass palette and caulking guns loaded with tubes of oil paint. He can rotate the canvas when he wants to work on a different section, applying the pigment with palette knives, one per hand like a drummer, sketching out his rhythmic and reverent interpretation.
His piece and the rest of the Paint Out! artwork will officially go on view Friday, July 23, and stay up through First Friday in August, potentially longer.
A rich year
Moore, who’s shown his work at the Dana since 2005, grew up in Burley, Idaho, and lives in Declo. There he’s turned a high-ceilinged former bean warehouse in the small town center into a studio and gallery space with enough room for other artists and workshops.
During the pandemic, all six of his children came back to stay with them, which he said made for “one of the richest years” of his adult life.
Moore had planned on staying inside during the Paint Out this year before the smoke rolled in, because he wanted to show how the process all works for any aspiring artists or collectors. (He believes that with enough education and passion, people can learn to draw despite any preconceptions about “natural gifts.” The passion and time part is key, though).
To pull off a piece this large in a few days, he painted a smaller run-through of the composition — “smaller” is relative, since a 30- by 40-inch painting is substantial. For the full-scale piece, he first blocked in major areas with acrylic, in washes or line drawing. Then comes the application of primary colors across the canvas and blocking in the major shapes.
Moore’s concepts of impressionism are rooted in art school education and his own trial-and-error techniques that he now teaches, some of which were based in his color-blindness. (To him, a rainbow appears as yellow and blue.)
Pointing to the photo he’s working from, with its foreground of trees and a mountain in back, he said, “I’m just dealing with shape. The brain deciphers it, but I just have to get the right value of harmonious color into this dynamic silhouette,” he said.
To illustrate for some gallery visitors, he took the photo and zoomed in until a section of somewhat homogenous rock was nothing but huge pixels in purple, gray and green.
He has five main relationships to consider in this scene — the sky, the mountain, the foliage, the ground plane and the vertical plane. “If I make it clear, and then get a progression of color within those separate values, those masses, then it will read at a distance, and close up it will be interesting just like those pixels,” he said.
Someone asked him whether color-blindness was a “disability” for a painter, and he said that while it was and sometimes still is difficult, it reminded him of the Bible verse, "count it all joy when you fall into various trials.”
“Because of the color-blindness, I paint this way, and I’ve developed a style that I’ve not seen anyone other than my students paint in,” he said.
The artists have free rein in their choice of locations, often with access to private land through the gallery. Some will paint a little in town, others have gone to the Missions and the Blackfoot.
“I can’t really keep them out of the Bitterroot,” said gallery owner Dudley Dana.
The smoke isn’t an unfamiliar obstacle, and he expects there’ll be some interesting imagery that comes out of the hazy backdrop.
The full list of participants includes Lori McNee, David Mensing, Caleb Meyer, Anna Moore, Clay Pape, Sheryl Silberman, Janet Sullivan, Garth Williams, and R. David Wilson. Besides the plein air pieces, the Dana will show recent studio pieces as well.