NELLYSFORD — Like a magic trick, the easel and paint box were unfolded in moments. A camera tripod reconfigured to hold a canvas was adjusted to Steve Doherty's height, level with the paint-smudged bill of his ball cap. The wooden box of oil paints unfurled into trifold compartments and was attached to the three-legged base.
Portability and convenience are essential for plein air artists, who need the ability to set up anywhere and often paint in relatively short bursts, creating works based on direct observation of a scene.
On Saturday, the second day of the Rockfish Valley Foundation's inaugural Plein Air Paint Out, about 24 artists were spread over miles of the Rockfish Valley Trail System in Nelson County. With easel and paints, they set up wherever they found suitable and spent the day painting along the hiking trails.
Plein air, a French expression meaning "in open air," is the act of painting outdoors, often heavily focused on nature and incorporating light and movement.
Doherty, chairman of the event, has been doing plein air painting since the 1980s. He said it appeals to artists who love to work directly in nature, and events like this one can reach people in the community who don't have experience with this kind of art — offering them a look at familiar landscapes through a different lens.
Doherty currently lives in Waynesboro but was a longtime editor of several art magazines, including, most recently, editor-in-chief of "PleinAir" magazine.
"It's this whole idea that you paint not just what you see, but what you feel about it, so as you get into nature, you get into the landscape," he said. "Part of what you want to do is have your painting reflect where you were and when you were there. That’s what keeps me going — the challenge of that."
He set up a piece he had begun the day before. It was only an hour and a half of work, but to an outsider seemed to be a finished scene — a huddle of dark trees beside a stream, the bank overgrown with greenery. As he considered it overnight, he said, he found it to be too dark, and decided to play more with midrange colors, and look harder at the use of light and shadow.
Coming up the trail was another of the artists, Anthony Bowes. He held his palette in front of him as he walked. Resting across the top was a landscape that he had completed in about three and a half hours. At events like this, he said he'll often tackle four different scenes a day.
The sky was overcast, but the rain held off. The weather and light played into each artists' piece, like Jane Goodman's, who was working in a field a ways away with another Charlottesville-based artist, Lee Halstead.
Both expressed a love for plein air, and Halstead called it a "way of communing with nature," drawn both by a love of the outdoors and a love of the act of painting.
Goodman said a good painting is like a story. On her canvas, gray clouds crowded the curve of her mountains, just as they did on the horizon beyond the canvas itself.
"The painter has selected that scene, that moment, to codify and experience," she said. "You’re trying to codify something ephemeral. In that way, it’s like a narrative.”
V-Anne Evans, a Keswick-based artist, was only a little farther up the gravel road that cut through the field, but focused on a different element of the scenery, oriented toward the tree line of the field.
"I'm responding to the feel of the place," she said. She finds this kind of direct painting to be the most realistic and, ultimately, the most rewarding. In light and color, she hopes to capture the "essence" of a place.
The pieces develop quickly, even as the light around them shifts and vistas subtly change. In 10 minutes, the entire canvas can transform.
"It's coming together," Goodman said. Her pleasure with the canvas in front of her overtook any uncertainty from moments before. The painting had crept into the foreground, empty space filled, new brightness blooming against the trees. The gravel road emerged on the canvas, an additional depth pulling the eye forward.
In an instant, in a handful of minutes, it was transformed.
The three-day event will culminate in the public display and sale of the produced works from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Tuckahoe Clubhouse in Stoney Creek at 37 Stone Orchard Dr. in Nellysford.