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Painters scout the western Montana landscapes for plein air compositions
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Painters scout the western Montana landscapes for plein air compositions

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Garth Williams’ white quad-cab pick-up truck rolled into the Triple Rock Ranch, a scenic property on the Blackfoot River, last Friday fully loaded.

He and his colleague, Cody White, debated the best spot to get to work as vehicles rolled past on the dirt road to the Ninemile Prairie Campground. Unlike them, these two decided to avoid the water.

They weren’t here to re-create, they were here to paint. The two Idaho landscape artists came to western Montana for the Dana Gallery’s 18th annual Plein Air Paint-Out, a choose-your-own-adventure celebration of making art in the elements, where the trade-off for a beautiful view are obstacles such as heat, rain, wind, potential lightning and invasive bugs, along with the ever-shifting color and light.

This particular afternoon, Williams and Cody held out their phones, or folded their forefingers and thumbs into square view-finders and scanned the area for a composition.

Williams had advised against bringing their gear all the way down to the river, which, while tempting in theory, would burn up the half-gone afternoon for the sake of a view mostly obscured by vegetation.

So they studied the hills around them, and both having found their spot, began unloading the truck, whose interior and bed were stuffed with canvases, plastic tubs and buckets, several of which contained an arsenal of caulking guns filled with oil paint.

After a false start, the two paused and brought out their tent, too. Beyond providing relief from the 80-degree heat, Williams explained how the brightness of direct sun on his canvas would make it difficult to paint properly. Once they’d picked smaller-scale ones they could execute in part of an afternoon, they got to work.

Williams lay his materials out on two folding tables, where he could paint with a palette knife instead of a brush, and mixed on the canvas with those caulking guns.

Earlier that day, Williams had set up in Hamilton and painted a road lined with trees and a crooked fence, with the mountains looming the background — an impressionist through and through, the green canopy sculpted from squares of pigment. The road was shades of deep purple and mauve.

Williams learned to paint from Robert Moore, the award-winning painter based in Declo, Idaho. The ability to elaborate on nature’s palette while creating a legible landscape is something he picked up from Moore, who has a novel system that teaches that value — lights and darks — take precedence over hue. Williams explained that as long as the hillsides are rendered with the correct intensities, he’s given more freedom with the colors he picks.

White, too, is an apprentice of Moore’s, who he met at church and soon became engrossed in painting in favor of his original path of culinary arts.

It’s his fourth Paint-Out, which he loves in part for the mountains and the tamaracks, which aren’t native to his stomping grounds.

“I always know when I get close to Missoula, I start seeing those trees,” he said.

White blocked in shapes, such as the distant hills and road. He moved one tree farther toward the center of his canvas to make the piece more interesting. While some landscape artists are purists about such things, he prefers to edit as needed.

“You’ll see things that look awkward, but you don’t have to paint that. As an artist, we can know what looks good and add on that,” he said. In some cases, there might be, say, a tree lining up too closely with a mountain, that if reproduced verbatim, would destroy the illusion of distance he’s trying to generate.

***

Anna Moore, daughter of Robert Moore, brought a more portable plein air set-up: a folding wooden easel, and so she chose a farther point where she could paint a hollow in the trees framing the mountains on the distant east end of the valley.

Moore, also of Idaho, was painting her first piece of the Paint Out, blocking in her composition with a muted brown base before expanding upon it.

She didn’t immerse herself in painting until college, studying graphic design eventually, and working with her father after graduation and showing work at the Dana.

“It’s very generous of heart for Montana people to embrace us Idaho painters,” she said.

It’s her third Paint Out, and while she typically paints from photos in her studio, “I prefer to paint outside. There’s a lot more inspiration, way more things to pick up and run with.”

The photographs feel stifling. In nature, though, “you’re bombarded.”

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