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Steamboat Art Museum opens nationally-renowned plein air exhibit Friday

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Steamboat Art Museum is already getting national attention for its newest exhibit, “Four Directions-Common Paths: Oberg, Smith, Whitcomb, Young,” opening Friday.

The four, Ralph Oberg, Matt Smith, Skip Whitcomb and Dan Young, have been friends for 30 years and are considered some of the best contemporary plein air painters in the country. They’ve painted together in Colorado, where three of the artists reside, as well as in Arizona, where Smith lives.

The exhibit opens Friday by reservation, which can be booked at steamboatartmuseum.org, and to the public Saturday. The exhibit will be available through April.



Over the last few decades, the group has traveled and painted together, learning from and critiquing each other.

To the untrained eye, the paintings may all look similar, but after a few short minutes in the museum, the differences are clear. Four paintings are exhibited in a row, one from each man, all done in the Flat Tops Wilderness. It’s fascinating to see how each artist saw the scene differently and chose to capture it. Some paintings feature large, bold swathes of color, while others have carefully placed smaller brush strokes.

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“They’re in the same location, but what is it that the four of them see?” asked Steamboat Art Museum Executive Director Betse Grassby. “It’s this wonderful opportunity to have four perspectives.”

In addition to dozens of the artists’ favorite paintings from over the years, there are photographs capturing the group’s friendship, adventures and travels.

The exhibit, “Four Directions-Common Paths: Oberg, Smith, Whitcomb, Young,” opens at the Steamboat Art Museuem on Friday.

Each painter is clearly influenced by where they spend their time. Smith uses warm, rich colors he sees every day in the Arizona desert. Young lives in Silt, Oberg lives in Montrose and Whitcomb lives in Fort Collins.

“They all address the desert sand a little differently,” Dottie Jones-Zabel, the museum’s director of operations, said. “It’s just a little bit of a different color. Even the way they do composition is different. After a while, you can tell who’s whose. … They all have a little bit of a different palette. Spend a little time in here and you’ll see the subtle differences.”

The exhibit also reveals how the men paint in more ways than one. There’s a backpack with all the equipment they haul through deserts or up mountain trails. Additionally, study paintings are exhibited next to the finished paintings.

Studies are the smaller paintings that are completed outside in the moment and then used as a reference for creating a larger piece. It’s curious to see the small changes in textures and light made from the smaller to the larger piece.

“Four Directions-Common Paths: Oberg, Smith, Whitcomb, Young” opens at the Steamboat Art Museuem on Friday.

Steamboat Art Museum always tries to incorporate an educational aspect for younger viewers in the Cole Verploeg Youth Gallery. For this exhibit, the museum is partnering with Yampatika and the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council to educate attendees on climate change, particularly focusing on the receding glaciers, as depicted in paintings by Whitcomb.

The exhibit is already getting national attention from other museums and is featured in an article in the latest issue of Western Art and Architecture magazine.

“These four accomplished artists are recognized as being among the preeminent practitioners of plein air painting in America,” said Seth Hopkins, edxecutive Director of the Booth Museum of Western Art.


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