Plein air art festival returns to paint Steamboat

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — If you’re not familiar with the art form plein air, it may sound a bit intimidating. But Steamboat Art Museum Executive Director Betse Grassby breaks it down simply: “Plein air is basically a dead French guy’s term for painting outside,” she said.

The Steamboat Art Museum’s Plein Air Event begins Friday, Sept. 20, and continues for more than a week, featuring events and activities of all shapes, sizes and colors. There’s a Plein Air Quick Draw event, taking place at the downtown Main Street Steamboat Farmers Market for the first time ever; a sunset reception at Alpine Mountain Ranch and Club; an evening talk with the festival’s 2019 judge and featured artist Dave Santillanes; an opening reception, awards presentation and art sale; and a three-day painting workshop led by Santillanes. 

Between these events, the artists spend their week spread across Routt County, easels up, brushes out. Some may set up downtown; others may be a short hike from the road. Thanks to partnerships between the festival and local property owners, the painters also have access to ranches and other private land they otherwise wouldn’t. 

“The artists love the opportunity to be here,” Grassby said. “We’ve got everything: vistas, beautiful historic ranches, a real downtown, a river. We’ve got colors.” 

The locality and familiarity of the artists’ subjects, Grassby notes, can be an excellent gateway for people who don’t often view paintings. 

“It’s really fun to appreciate art with a familiar subject matter. You get to see many interpretations of one place,” she said. “And because you’re able to see (the artist) painting, there can be more meaning to the piece.” 

That idea can apply to the artists’ sense of meaning, too. 

“You really get to know a place when you sit there for a few hours (painting) and contemplating it,” Santillanes said. “I think that’s really how you tell the story of a spot.”

As the festival’s judge and featured artist, Santillanes will be awarding first-, second- and third-place prizes and an honorable mention to participating artists. Santillanes’ work was featured in Steamboat Art Museum’s “Imagining the West” exhibit, which was on display from December 2017 to April 2018. He also claimed first prize in the Oil Painters of America’s 27th National Exhibition in Steamboat in summer 2018. Fort Collins-based Santillanes has painted all across the West and regularly teaches painting workshops. 

“It’s a monumentally difficult task (to judge plein air),” Santillanes said. “‘Getting it right’ is such an open-ended question.” 

So he breaks judging down into more concrete criteria: 

  • Design of the painting
  • Story of the painting and how well it’s told
  • Technique of the painting

“Ultimately, I can’t divorce myself from a painting I’m really attracted to,” Santillanes added. “So when there are paintings I’m naturally drawn to, it’s about analyzing what’s motivating me to love this painting.” 

While Santillanes of course won’t be competing in the event he’s judging, he plans to bring his painting supplies up to Steamboat and will “break out the brushes and sling some paint” whenever he has even an extra 30 minutes. 

In addition to the traditional prizes, participating artists will also take home a $200 award from Historic Routt County and another from Main Street Steamboat springs. Both organizations select the painting that best represents the organization’s mission and get to use that image in their publicity. 

During Grassby’s time with Steamboat Art Museum, she’s seen the festival grow to its current status of hosting about 60 artists, the festival’s capacity. About a dozen of this year’s artists are local; around 15 have strong local connections.

“It’s been a wonderful way for artists to grow,” Grassby said. “They’ll come back, year after year, and you’ll watch their artwork improve as they practice and as they’re mentored by the more experienced artists.”

Even with a consistent showing of returning artists, Grassby noted, the festival always has new artists joining in, and with the festival being non-juried, any artist at any level of their career may enter.

Even if you can’t make it to an official Plein Air Festival event, hopefully you can catch a peek of some of the plein air artists during their week of painting.

“When you see painters on the side of the road painting, it kind of causes you to remember how beautiful the place is that you live,” Santillanes said. 

For a complete list of Plein Air Festival events and dates, visit

Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.