Two artists participating in the EnPleinAirTEXAS event dressed in period costume while painting the view at Fort Concho in San Angelo, Texas.
“When we go out to paint en plein air, we carry with us the long tradition and heritage of those artists who have come before us,” says Lon Brauer. “The plein air movement took root in the mid-19th century with the development of re-closable tubes for transporting paint. With this one invention, artists found it practical to pack gear and head into the field. Painters could take advantage of direct observation to truly capture what they saw in the environment. This ultimately led to the innovative vision of the Impressionists of the 1880s. So what was it actually like to paint en plein air in the late 1800s?
“R. Gregory Summers and I thought we would take a step back in time to find out. In late October, while participating in EnPleinAirTEXAS, we had our chance to dress the part and play in a truly historic setting. We carried tools and materials as period-appropriate as possible. In the end — well, we found that painting is painting. But for both of us it brought a fresh perspective and a new energy to the thing we so love.”
Summers recalls, “When I was first asked by Barbara Rollo of the EnPleinAirTEXAS event to demo at the chuck wagon at Old Fort Concho, the first thing that popped into my head was ‘Lon Brauer.’ Not because I wanted him to take my place, but because I knew he was big into reenacting and would probably not only have all the period gear to paint in. He might even want to take part, kind of ‘dueling painters,’ if you will. I had run into Lon at the Battle of New Orleans bicentennial, and found out how big he and his wife were into this. And I was right — he was all over it and told me all I needed to do was to find a period hat.
“On the day we needed to paint at Fort Concho, Lon brought all the gear, saw my hat and asked me what my hat size was, went back to his van and brought back something more appropriate. My black cowboy hat was just not going to get it. Well, he dressed me up in early-1800s clothes, while he took the more appropriate 1860s. I was not going to be choosy, I mean, it was his stuff. I loved what he brought out, suspenders, old peasant’s hat, big-sleeved linen shirt, and leather leggings to ward off snakes and cactus. It was totally cool, and with my old French easel, I was totally feeling the pioneer.
“We set up there close to the chuck wagon. Suzy Baker was nearby doing a period portrait, and I found some shade and began painting a little quartet playing old time music. All our favorites from the 1800s — I didn’t know I knew that many till they began playing. I was surprised!
“The ‘dueling painters’ idea kind of went by the wayside; folks came up and oohed and aahed at us, asking questions, and kept us from doing anything but painting and talking to them. Lon zoomed in on a figure, while I was doing the whole scene with the fort and the musicians. As I was painting, a young gal was watching me, and I asked her if she might like to try her luck at it. She looked back at who I thought was her grandmother and she nodded her head in approval, and the rest was pure magic. She took the brush and carefully dipped it into the paints and placed it precisely on the canvas and burst into a smile of delight. She spent the next half hour mixing and putting paint to canvas, with thought and concentration, and the delight that we don’t normally see in you and I.”
Summers goes on, “The ‘little girl’s’ name was Avery, and she was 17 years old. Avery has Down syndrome. I don’t know enough about it to say, but when she mixed the color green from my limited palette and placed it on the painting, the look and way she said ‘green’ was to die for. She painted bright beautiful color with perfect precision, and I just watched and learned, and let the joy fill my heart. I let Avery paint for about a half an hour, and then I let her keep the painting. It was only right, I think. She loved the experience, and I did too.
“Lon and I kept the period clothing for the rest of the day. Why not? It was a big Texas show at Fort Concho — no need to melt back into the crowd of the present day. How often do you get a chance? Lon has gone on to do many more reenactments since then. Me, I’m back to my regular street gear, but a great experience it was for all. And he let me keep the hat! How cool is that?”