Plein air painters capture beautiful landscapes on canvas

Tom Gilbert founded Dane County Plein Air Painters to create a community around painting "in the open air."
Man stands facing away from camera as he paints a bridge over water scene on a canvas and easel
Photos by Kenton Fowler
Tom Gilbert paints the bridge in Vilas Park during a Plein Air outing in October 2021.

Tom Gilbert lifts his hand-held viewfinder and scans his surroundings to find a framing that might inspire a painting. It’s half past 5 p.m. on one of those comfortable summer nights that’s so picturesque, you let a small part of yourself believe it might last forever if you stand there and breathe it in long enough.

“Once you’ve painted outdoors for a while, it’s so much better than being in a studio to me,” says Gilbert, who is joined by a handful of other artists who have met at Vilas Park for a Dane County Plein Air Painters outing. They’re painting en plein air, which is a French expression meaning “in the open air.” Plein air painting dates back to the 1800s and became a fundamental element of impressionism.

Their equipment and tools vary, as do the spots around Vilas Park where they’ve chosen to set up for the evening. In paint-splattered jeans, Gilbert adjusts the modified camera tripod, which holds a hinged paint box for his supplies and a wooden frame to hold his panel. He’s even made a wooden holder — no patent yet, he jokes — that allows him to transport a wet panel.

Mary McCormick Wixson, who ties on an apron before getting started, is using oil pastels that are neatly arranged from cool to warm colors in the tray on her easel. The tubes of Barb Zellmer’s water-based oils are hidden underneath the sliding paint palette of her mahogany art box, which is covered in smudgy dots and dashes from past projects. Another painter keeps her equipment simple and portable by using Altoids containers as her watercolor pans. She sits on a three-legged fold-up stool and uses her lap instead of an easel. Sitting as close to Lake Wingra as possible without falling into the shoreline brush, she sketches out a scene with a graphite pencil before adding watercolors in delicate and restrained brushstrokes.

Four painters interspersed between four trees sit and stand on the edge of a lake and paint.

An October 2021 Plein Air outing in Vilas Park (Photo by Kenton Fowler)

Photo by Kenton Fowler

Gilbert founded Dane County Plein Air Painters in 2012 after retiring from a 30-year career as an environmental engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He says he was a “Sunday painter” when he first started painting around 2000, but he wanted to improve his craft after retiring. He runs a website and, once every two weeks, sends an email to a growing list of DCPAP members with a time and place for an outing. The free-to-join group has slowly grown to about 90 people. On average, fewer than a dozen show up for a single outing at places like Indian Lake County Park, Pheasant Branch Conservancy and the UW Arboretum. Gilbert — who talks about some of the bigger plein air events and competitions that take place in Door County, Mineral Point, Cedarburg and elsewhere — says the best way to describe the DCPAP outings is that they are informal.

“There are groups that critique each other’s paintings at the end of a session,” he says. “We don’t do that too much, but there’s a lot of talking and learning from each other. We have some very good painters.”

Seemingly no one at Vilas Park that night admitted to being a “serious artist,” Gilbert included. But what shows up on their canvases and panels demonstrates otherwise.

Gilbert puts down shades of burnt orange and deep purple in his rough outline of the Lake Wingra shore. He hovers his brush over the panel, almost as if he might decide not to touch it at all, but then it lands in one confident swipe, followed by a flurry of circular and back-and-forth strokes. He uses one brush, then a slightly bigger one, then a rag that he wipes across a section. He finishes his underpainting as the reflecting colors in the water signal the sun’s grand finale descent, and that’s when the clock starts ticking.

“That’s the tricky thing about painting a sunset — the light might last 20 minutes or so,” Gilbert says. “So you have to be all ready to go when those 20 minutes start and try to get it really quick.”

The colors he begins layering make the panel nearly blend into the landscape. But he hasn’t intended to interpret the scene super realistically. “What I try to do is combine the literal with the abstract,” he says. “The literal will give you meaning about things — you see boats on the water and people, and you can relate to that. But the abstract gives you beauty.”

It’s a way of painting that Gilbert says he learned from other plein air painters, including esteemed plein air artist John Hughes. “A lot of it is seeing things vitally or intensely,” Gilbert adds.

By the time Gilbert’s painting is complete, the evening light has all but disappeared, the day gone. But that perfect summer night at Vilas Park does, in fact, last forever. Not in person, but in paint.

Tom Gilbert says fall is probably the best time for plein air painting, because the greens of summer begin to turn all different shades, making for more interesting paintings. Photos were taken during an October 2021 outing to Vilas Park.

Andrea Behling is editor of Madison Magazine. This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.

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