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Photo courtesy of Andrea Slusarski

Try Your Hand at Plein-Air Painting With These Tips From a Pro

Denver artist and teacher Andrea Slusarski shares her tips for how to capture outdoor scenes—no iPhone necessary.

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Most summers, Coloradans can be found filing into Rocky Mountain National Park to ogle gorgeous natural wonders—and, of course, to snap pictures of them. Packing into popular attractions (if they’re even open; Rocky was still closed at press time) isn’t advisable this year, but in case you haven’t noticed, just about every square inch of our state has beauty worthy of your gaze. Nobody knows this better than Andrea Slusarski, a plein-air artist and associate professor at Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design, who says that “drawing the outdoors makes you see it a different way.” So put down your phone and try Slusarski’s approach to appreciating—and documenting—the Centennial State, no matter your vantage point.

Step 1: Gather your materials.
Slusarski uses a Stillman & Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, but if you don’t want to drop $20, paper scraps are fine. She suggests trying a variety of drawing utensils, including graphite, colored, and watercolor pencils. (Bring a small jar with a lid so you can carry out your dirty paint water—leave no trace applies to artists, too.) Pro tip: Pack a cushion or blanket to sit on.

Step 2: Select your scene.
Although you might feel comfortable heading out to a secluded spot on a less trodden trail, Slusarski says your backyard or neighborhood park make equally worthwhile subjects.

Step 3: Loosen up.
“A lot of people get overwhelmed when they start out,” Slusarski says. “Our brains like to simplify things, so we’re seeing an object but not actually drawing it accurately.” She suggests starting with an exercise she teaches her art pupils: a blind contour drawing. Illustrators depict a subject without looking at their drawing pad or lifting their pencil, a drill that helps novices home in on the specifics of their scene.

Step 4: Sketch!
“Something I like to emphasize is that everyone’s art should look different,” Slusarski says, so don’t stress if your first drawings come out, ahem, abstract. Instead, focus on appreciating all the details—an oddly curved aspen, nesting red-winged blackbirds, the cairn your child stacked in your landscaping—that you would’ve otherwise missed.

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