Capturing creation through art
July 28, 2022
Around 7:30 a.m., Andrew Kneeland found what he was looking for. It was an aspen tree, the leaves creating dappled shadows on the trunk in the early morning light. Andrew set up his blank canvas, got his painting supplies out of a small wooden box, and got to work.
Within four hours the painting was done, and by the afternoon it was sold.
"It's fast," Andrew said. "This, for me, is just cramming it out."
Typically Andrew can spend 100 to 200 hours on a painting in his studio. For example, a painting of an eagle took nine months of on and off work to complete.
While painting an aspen tree in a few hours was a challenge outside of his normal comfort zone, Andrew enjoyed the experience.
"I keep learning so much every time I try this en plein air style," he said.
The aspen tree painting was done for the Plein Air Fest at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole in June. Andrew was the only artist to have a studio and live full-time in Sweetwater County who competed in the annual event. It was his third time taking part in the museum's competition, and just one of the art competitions he hopes to be part of this year.
Plein Air Fest
Every year the National Museum of Wildlife Art hosts an en plein air competition, with artists from across Wyoming, neighboring states, and even as far away as Texas coming to take part.
"It's a really, really fun event that's been going on for quite a few years," Andrew said.
The competition is kept short in order to fit the en plein air style of painting outdoors and working quickly.
Artists are required to have their canvas stamped before they begin to prove they started with a blank canvas and the painting was done within the time limit. They can either start the day before and choose a location from anywhere in Teton County or show up on the morning of the competition and paint from the museum grounds, which overlook the National Elk Refuge. Regardless of when they start, all artists have to finish their paintings at the museum within a time limit on the day of the competition.
During the competition, the museum is open to the public for free, so anyone can watch the artists at work.
Once the artists finish, the paintings are displayed and an auction is held where buyers can meet the painters. The event serves as a fundraiser for the museum, with proceeds from the paintings being split 50/50 between the museum and the artists.
Andrew's history with the Plein Air Fest goes back to the summers of 2018 and 2019 when he interned at the museum and helped put the competition on. His first year competing in the event was in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it an unusual year, with artists doing their paintings remotely anywhere in the state they chose.
Andrew's first time competing on-location at the museum was last year, when his painting was chosen as Best in Show. Winning was a surprise for Andrew, who not only doesn't consider himself an en plein air painter but also forgot the event was a competition.
"I was showing up just to paint a picture," Andrew said. "I didn't even notice judges walking around until someone grabbed a microphone."
Andrew described his winning painting as "a typical scene in an untypical way." He chose to paint a landscape of the National Elk Refuge, but used a vertical canvas instead of a horizontal one, creating "a portrait of a landscape" showing the layers of the mountains and the creek.
This year, Andrew decided to paint something more "up close and personal," which is how he settled on the aspen tree.
"It ended up being much much harder than just a landscape painting," Andrew said. "But I learned a ton as I did it."
En Plein Air
"En plein air" is a French expression meaning "in the open air."
"That style of painting is all done outside on location, observing directly from life and painting it," Andrew explained, noting the style has a long tradition behind it, especially in the American West.
"Artists would be taken along on expeditions into the West to capture the scenes of the mountains, the ranges, the rivers - everything that they saw," he said.
The tradition has continued on, according to Andrew, and has created a unique format.
"It tends to be a much looser style of painting," he explained. "You're trying to go really fast because everything's changing, the shadows are shifting. . . It's just a more gestural style of painting because you're having to move so quickly before the colors change, before light changes - you're dealing with so many elements."
Other challenges are presented by dealing with natural elements like changes in weather, as well as logistical concerns, like carrying supplies and using paints that don't dry out too quickly.
En plein air painting always presents new challenges for Andrew, who typically does detailed studio art and not impressionism. However, since he took part in the competitions, he's started to like the style more. Learning from the challenges it presents also helps him with his other artwork.
"Everyone gets it a loop of trusting what we think we see, not what we actually see," Andrew said. "[En plein air painting] teaches you to not trust your instincts as much as you trust what you see right in front of you."
Going forward, Andrew hopes to continue taking part in more painting competitions throughout Wyoming and in Sweetwater County.
Within the next few months, several en plein air competitions are being held, including the first Sweetwater County Plein Air Competition in August and two plein air competitions taking place in Sheridan and Cheyenne in September hosted by the Wyoming Arts Council. Andrew hopes to be able to fit some of these competitions into his schedule.
One competition he already knows he will be taking part in is the annual Art on the Green, the local 24-hour art competition that takes place every year during River Fest at Expedition Island.
"This is my first year to try it out, but I'm very excited to give it a shot," he said.
Being part of competitions with other artists helps encourage Andrew to keep going.
"It's really inspirational," he said. "You get to meet people who are doing what you do, and living a life similar to what you're living. In Sweetwater County, there's not a lot of full-time artists. And it definitely feels encouraging and inspiring to be surrounded by that kind of group where you're like, 'Oh, I'm not alone.' I feel like I'm just getting my creative juices filled up."
Painting in Sweetwater County
Andrew describes being a full-time artist in Sweetwater County as "an adventure."
One of Andrew's motivating forces is his desire to show people the beauty of all parts of Wyoming, not just places like Teton County.
Many people's view of Southwest Wyoming is what they can see from I-80, but Andrew said he tells people to get off the interstate so they can experience the beauty that exists here.
"Down here we have such a diversity and such a unique landscape that you'll find nowhere else, and I think it deserves to be expressed through painting and through art, and the fact that it's been neglected is kind of exciting for me, because it gives me the opportunity to express things that I've seen no one else express," he said.
In addition to showcasing the beauty he sees around him, Andrew hopes others will connect with that beauty as well.
"I have a lot of personal drive and a lot of personal desire to bring beautiful art into a place where it feels like it's missing," he said. "It is kind of this creative struggle where I'm trying to figure out what works for the business and what communicates to people and brings beauty to their lives and what connects with people. Whether or not people are going to buy the artwork, it's an adventure to figure out what connects with people's emotions, like what parts of Sweetwater County, what parts of Wyoming resonate with people."
Andrew's ultimate goals are to serve people with what he creates and to reflect the creativity of creation.
"For me, I feel like an artist who's just imitating the greatest artist, who is God," Andrew explained. "For me, God is the master artist of everything, of the entire world. And so when I walk through a forest or look out across the desert, I see a painting - that's God's painting. That's what He did. And I think that for me is what connects with me the most and what I want to imitate and reflect back to God and to others. . . That's ultimately where my inspiration comes from, is God's artistry."
Andrew's work can be found in his art studio, Kneeland Fine Art, at 203 D Street in Rock Springs, or through his website or Facebook page under Kneeland Fine Art.