The varied and vivid landscapes of Wyoming move oil painter Bill Sawczuk to take a more expressive approach to plein air painting. Read more in this exclusive excerpt from the February/March 2018 issue of Plein Air magazine (subscribe to Plein Air here!).
By Bob Bahr
The Teton Mountains are so iconic and dramatic, they move some to tears. “The Tetons are very difficult to paint,” says Wyoming artist Bill Sawczuk. “I’ve seen people cry at the effort. They are good painters, but they come here and try to paint these mountains and it wrecks them. I’ve been here 25 years and I’m just getting the hang of it.”
It’s not just that mountain range, though. Sawczuk points out that the western half of Wyoming is full of challenging rock. “We have so many surfaces here,” he says. “There’s the granite in the Tetons. There are those hobgoblin-like volcanic shapes in the Cody area. All of these things are affected by light so differently. In one of my painting spots, the light in the morning hits a wall of rock and it looks like solid gold. It fades away in a hurry, but that’s what light does here in Wyoming.” (Like this? Click here to share it on Facebook!)
Sawczuk’s corner of Wyoming is high and dry, so there’s little atmospheric distortion. “Both the color and the detail of things far away look very clear,” he points out. The saving grace is that few see the amazing light show or spectacular scene that the artist did when plein air painting. “They don’t know what you are looking at,” Sawczuk says. “They see what they like right there in that picture. They don’t know what it looked like in real life. So you work with what you have.”
This does not mean taking liberties with the drawing — at least not in the case of the Tetons. “The Tetons are one of the few ranges that are very recognizable,” Sawczuk says. “They are not just high points on a range like in most of Colorado’s Rockies.” And as with all landscapes in a mountainous area, the light moves quickly. “The shadows change so much, especially with mountains that rise up right out of the plains like the Teton Range.”
So how does Sawczuk handle it? “I do a careful sketch of the shapes, then wait for the light that I want,”he says. “Then I immediately put all the shadows in. I do the lit areas after that. You can’t keep adjusting it.”
Speed is key when painting in the shadows. “I take a nice flat brush — I like the length of flats, and they hold a lot of paint — and get a nice dark with one pass of the brush,” he says. “If I’m painting a building, I try to get all the soffits and under the eaves down, then your eye will complete what the building looks like. If you do that right, the painting finishes itself.” Sawczuk says after no more than three hours on location, he has all the information he wants on the surface.
He often fine-tunes later in the studio what he put down outdoors. “I recently did a Teton painting with snow, trees, grass, and a fence and I left it pretty much untouched back in the studio,” says the artist. “That doesn’t happen often. A lot of the time I only get half of what I need, and the light changes so much that I have to stop.”