Tom Gilbert raises his handheld viewfinder and scans his surroundings for a framing that might inspire a painting. It’s 5:30 p.m. on one of those cozy summer nights so picturesque that you let a small part of you believe it could go on forever if you stay there and breathe long enough.

“Once you’ve painted outside for a while, it’s so much better than being in a studio for me,” says Gilbert, who is joined by a handful of other artists who met at Vilas Park for a Dane County Plein Air Painters exit. They paint in the open air, which is a French expression meaning “in the open air”. Plein air painting dates back to the 1800s and became a fundamental part of Impressionism.

Their equipment and tools vary, as do the spots around Vilas Park where they choose to set up shop for the evening. In paint-splattered jeans, Gilbert adjusts the modified camera tripod, which contains a hinged paint box for his supplies and a wooden frame to hold his panel. He even made a wooden rack — no patent yet, he jokes — that allows him to carry a wet panel.

Mary McCormick Wixson, who ties up an apron before starting, uses carefully arranged oil pastels from cool to warm colors in her easel tray. Barb Zellmer’s tubes of water-based oils are hidden under the sliding paint palette of her mahogany art box, which is covered in smudged dots and dashes from past projects. Another painter keeps her equipment simple and portable by using Altoids containers as watercolor tubs. She sits on a three-legged folding stool and uses her knees instead of an easel. Sitting as close to Lake Wingra as possible without falling into the shoreline brush, she sketches a scene in graphite pencil before adding watercolors in delicate, restrained brushstrokes.

An October 2021 Plein Air outing to Vilas Park (Photo by Kenton Fowler)

Photo by Kenton Fowler

Gilbert founded Dane County Plein Air Painters in 2012 after retiring from a 30-year career as an environmental engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He says he was a ‘weekend painter’ when he started painting around 2000, but wanted to improve his craft after retirement. He maintains a website and, once every two weeks, emails a growing list of DCPAP members with a time and place for a hangout. The free membership group slowly grew to about 90 people. On average, fewer than a dozen show up for a single outing at places like Indian Lake County Park, Pheasant Branch Conservancy and the UW Arboretum. Gilbert — who talks about some of the biggest outdoor events and competitions taking place in Door County, Mineral Point, Cedarburg and elsewhere — says the best way to describe DCPAP outings is that they’re informal.

“There are groups that criticize other people’s paintings at the end of a session,” he says. “We don’t do it too much, but there’s a lot of talking and learning from each other. We have very good painters.

Apparently no one in Vilas Park that night admitted to being a “serious entertainer”, including Gilbert. But what appears on their canvases and panels demonstrates the opposite.

Gilbert lays down shades of burnt orange and deep purple in his rough outline of the shore of Lake Wingra. He runs his brush over the panel, almost as if he could choose not to touch it at all, but then it lands in one confident stroke, followed by a flurry of sweeping, back-and-forth strokes. He uses a paintbrush, then a little bigger, then a cloth that he wipes over a section. He finishes his undercoat as the reflective colors in the water signal the sun’s final grand descent, and that’s when the weather starts to turn.

“That’s the trickiest thing about painting a sunset – the light can last for about 20 minutes,” says Gilbert. “So you have to be ready to go when those 20 minutes start and try to do it very quickly.”

The colors he begins to superimpose make the panel almost blend into the landscape. But he does not intend to interpret the scene very realistically. “What I try to do is combine the literal and the abstract,” he says. “The literal will give you meaning to things – you see boats on the water and people, and you can identify with that. But the abstract gives you beauty.

It’s a way of painting that Gilbert says he learned from other plein air painters, including famed plein air artist John Hughes. “A lot of it is about seeing things in a vital or intense way,” adds Gilbert.

By the time Gilbert’s painting is finished, the evening light has all but disappeared, the day is gone. But that perfect summer night in Vilas Park actually lasts forever. Not in person, but in painting.

Tom Gilbert says fall is probably the best time to paint outdoors, as the greens of summer begin to take on all the shades, making the paintings more interesting. The photos were taken during an October 2021 outing to Vilas Park.

Andrea Behling is editor-in-chief of Madison Magazine. This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.

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