Plein air painting of an Airstream RV
Stephanie Hartshorn, “Airstream Spring,” 2019, Oil on wood panel, 9 x 12 in.

The following is part of a series featuring a leading plein air painter who will be joining us on the faculty of the Plein Air Convention & Expo, taking place May 21-25, 2023 in Denver, Colorado.

Each action-packed day includes indoor demonstrations on four stages by the world’s leading artists, including specialty sessions for oil, watercolor, pastel, and acrylic. It’s a chance to sample the techniques of a faculty of over 80 painters!

Plein Air Painter Stephanie Hartshorn: The Osmotic Relationship Between Human Being and Architecture

by Laura Vailati
Art enthusiast and Editor at Miami Niche

Art-architecture-sculpture: A triad once regarded as an implicit concept whereby the architect was the genius of space and the author of every dynamic that had light as its interpreter. A triad that over time has been split into separate figures – as if art or sculpture were no longer part of the profession of the architect – but has been able to serve, quite unconsciously, as a catalyst in the artistic process of Stephanie Hartshorn, who will be among the faculty members of the Plein Air Convention and Expo (PACE), May 21-25, 2023.

Stephanie Hartshorn, “Guest house,” 2021, Oil on wood panel, 11 x 16 in.
Stephanie Hartshorn, “Guest house,” 2021, Oil on wood panel, 11 x 16 in.

She will be present to support, answer questions, and give feedback to participants, an important role that was played for her by Kevin Weckbach – her mentor – and Mark Daily. These key figures introduced her to plein air painting – a process that was anything but easy for someone who was used to studio painting. Among the processes Stephanie remembers being most difficult was the making of what she calls: “the big damn shapes.”

Kevin and Mark helped her grow professionally while respecting her character and artistic inclination. She takes this in turn with her students, inviting them to take a relaxed approach to art and to think out of the box. “I think events like PACE are very important because the hands-on demonstrations help you understand that there is more than one way to do anything,” she said, “and this is exciting because it gives you more options to choose from to create your painting.”

Stephanie Hartshorn, “Flying V.” Oil on wood panel, 12 x 12 in.
Stephanie Hartshorn, “Flying V.” Oil on wood panel, 12 x 12 in.

Born and raised in Colorado, Stephanie worked for ten years as an architect while also earning a master’s degree in Preservation Studies before admitting to herself that she wanted to make decisions as a “creative adult.”

Indeed, it was enough to participate in an art class with her daughters to awaken the dormant connection between her childhood spent working with clay and the sculptural gestures with which she now creates her works. Her practice is poised between scientific and humanistic thought, which she makes with the help of the flexible tools of sculpture – such as the rib tool – and with which she blocks in the forms with a very thin layer of paint.

Unlike most artists-architects, who tend to make watercolor works in the wake of rendering projects, Stephanie has found oil to be right for her needs. “Oils are not like clay, but I think the tools and their movement on the panel, as well as the textures and reliefs that can be made with them, are very reminiscent of it,” she said. “I love how I feel when painting … the building, carving, pulling. I often I don’t feel like I’m painting; I feel like I’m sculpting or building, and this is something that comes from my architecture days.”

Stephanie Hartshorn, “Pasture Sweep,” 2022, Oil on wood panel, 12 x 24 in.
Stephanie Hartshorn, “Pasture Sweep,” 2022, Oil on wood panel, 12 x 24 in.

Known and renowned for her emotional “portraiture” of the rural landscapes of the American West, Stephanie Hartshorn works primarily on birch wood panels that she previously coats with a thin layer of PVA (Poly Vinyl Acetate). This process prevents the gesso – usually used to coat the panel in order to allow the color to adhere to the support – from disfiguring the textures and knots of the wood, thus nullifying the poetic grain that characterizes it and that is fundamental to the artist, both for narrative and stylistic purposes. Wood also allows her to proceed without the hassle of an initial underpainting because she takes advantage of the undertone of soft wood: “Sometimes I leave areas of raw wood and I love that effect as well.”

Stephanie Hartshorn, “Summer Orange,” 2021, Oil on wood panel, 10 x 16 in.
Stephanie Hartshorn, “Summer Orange,” 2021, Oil on wood panel, 10 x 16 in.

For her studio work, she experiments by superimposing photographic references, to figure out – compositely – where she wants to go. For plein air painting, she makes thumbnails on different formats: “It’s really fun to apply different proportions and see what happens,” she said. “It can be surprising.” She also routinely makes tonal value studies on a monochromatic scale.

In the choice of composition, she relies on the study of the masters of plein air painting, without letting herself be bound too much by the rigid compositional rules. For the choice of size she prefers to experiment with different formats – 12″ x 12″ or 12″ x 16″, never exceeding – for obvious reasons of time – the size of 10 “x 20”.

Her way of working on the composition is a continuous back and forth in which she alternates between the application of thin layers of paint spread with sculptural tools, always proceeding from the realization of the darker colors that as a result of layering become lighter and lighter until the light points emerge with a rather thick texture.

In terms of color choice, she uses a rather limited palette. She fins this reassuring, especially for beginners, because it prevents one from “going off the rails.” Her palette has no temperature variations per color and consists mainly of titanium white, blue, yellow, and red. “With these four colors I can create an infinite amount of other colors,” she said. (Stephanie recently introduced burnt umber and never misses the presence of Indian Red, which characterizes her barns.

Stephanie Hartshorn, “Stone & Stable,” 2022, Oil on wood panel, 7 x 16 in.
Stephanie Hartshorn, “Stone & Stable,” 2022, Oil on wood panel, 7 x 16 in.

An important factor in Stephanie’s compositions is the movement she recreates with special care of the sky and the textures of the structural elements she introduces into the composition.

To return to the architecture-art-sculpture triad, she says her goal is to figure out how to express the beauty around her and how to translate the scene onto a two-dimensional surface while creating a three-dimensional experience.

Visit the artist’s website at

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