Plein air artists stay busy in winter in various ways. Many just bundle up and head out to paint in the cold weather. Others have different methods to stay sharp. What does Colorado artist Jeanne Mackenzie do? She pretends. 

She makes a point of going to gallery and museum shows “to keep my eye sharp,” as she says. She contemplates ideas for summer paintings, and she might sand down and gesso over older paintings to recycle the panels for new pieces. She may examine her plein air studies to see if any would work well as larger pieces with a change — by moving the horizon line or focal point, for instance. But mostly, she pretends she’s outside when she’s not outside.

“Colorado Blue,” by Jeanne Mackenzie, oil, 6 x 6 in.

“In Colorado we will have 40-degree days in winter, and it will arrive with bright sunshine — you can go out and be quite comfortable painting, and even peel off layers as the day goes on,” says Mackenzie. “And the winter sun is so low that from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. you get a really nice light. In summer, the midday light is not nearly as interesting. During winter, you can enjoy a snow-filled, snowy day, and the light is right all day.

“But if I’m staying in the studio, I do quick studies to get me seeing things quickly. It’s about analyzing with a more educated eye so I can do the work a little more spontaneously outside because I practiced during the winter months. I just make a point to do it quickly rather than doing detailed sketches and spending three or four hours, and maybe coming back and working on it again.”

“Quiet Ebb,” by Jeanne Mackenzie, oil, 6 x 8 in.

Mackenzie said these hourlong studies take a bit of discipline because the studio invites a slower pace. “It’s a controlled atmosphere, and you get the music going, and you have all the amenities,” she says. “You achieve that comfort level and have all the time you need for a painting. It’s a whole different animal in the field.”

The Fort Collins artist says she teaches in the winter, and her students appreciate this approach. She supplies the reference photos and the guidance. “They say, ‘I can’t do a painting in one hour!’ And then darn if they don’t like those paintings better than their five-hour paintings,” says Mackenzie. “They are not happy with their overworked brushstrokes and what they see as too much detail. So this helps them work more spontaneously, with more bravado in their brushstrokes. That’s hard to do when someone wants all the detail right away. You have to learn to pick up the pace, have a more analytical eye, and make decisions on value and color — to trust your instincts and observation. That happens by doing it.”

For Mackenzie, it’s more than an exercise. It’s her modus operandi. “I approach a studio piece the same way I approach plein air,” she says. “I block in representational shapes and colors right away and cover the canvas, and then bring details a little bit later. I am the same person in the winter painting in the studio as I am when I’m out in the field. Quick and spontaneous.”

“A River Bluffs Sunrise,” by Jeanne Mackenzie, 2014, oil, 20 x 40 in.

Mackenzie’s dedication to her craft and poetic soul were recognized by the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources last year when that body named her Visual Artist of the Year, an honor that included public appearances, demos, the donation of one of her pieces to the department’s public collection, and significant publicity. Mackenzie spent 2014 painting the area’s protected lands, some of which are accessible only with a permit. She led classes in several locations, and scouted out her spot for the painting that would go into the organization’s permanent collection at the courthouse in Fort Collins. 

She says, “I worked up a plein air piece in the summer months as a demo, then took it back into the studio to make a larger piece based on it and some photos. I went back at dawn one day to get the light I wanted. My painting ‘A River Bluffs Sunrise’ is an interpretation of the place, my vision of the river before the destructive floods changed its edges.”


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