Colorado painter braves snow, rain to capture rare backcountry scenes

<p>South Fork of Big Creek painted by Michael Charron.</p>

Artist Michael Charron of Morrison has some surprising painting companions -- llamas. He uses four of them to pack his gear into the wilderness, where he sets up his easel and paints what he sees, a method known as “plein air” or painting outdoors.

He said this way he captures, “views rarely seen and probably never painted.”

"Pictorial Essays from Colorado Journeys 2014," a collection of more than 40 of Charron’s paintings from his trips into the wilderness, is on display now through Dec. 20 at the Gilmore Art Center in Denver.

Finding new material

Lately he’s been focusing primarily on the Mt. Zirkel wilderness in northwestern Colorado near Steamboat Springs. He chose this area because it is less well-known than, for example, the wilderness near Aspen.

“After you’ve seen thousands of paintings of Maroon Bells, it’s a little cliched,” Charron said.

He identifies areas he thinks will be good subjects in advance of his trip using Google Earth.

“I want to get maximum drama out of the light. The best angle of light is when the sun is setting or rising. During the rest of the day the only way you get good light is when there are clouds,” he said. “I usually get up an hour before dawn - not sunrise - to get set up.”

Typically he works on small canvases because that’s what’s most realistic in the wilderness setting.

“The light changes a lot and it takes hours to even do a small painting,” Charron said.

He also makes sketches and takes photographs and notes to use as a basis for larger works during the winter when he’s back in his home studio.

Demanding work pays off

Painting in the backcountry has its challenges. Besides getting all the art supplies out there along with his camp gear and food, environmental conditions are challenging. Rain and snow might shut him down because the oil paint won’t apply to the canvas properly.

“Mosquitos are the worst. They’re brutal in July, sometimes I wonder why I’m doing it. I’ve got my pants tucked into socks. I’m wearing surgeons gloves and a mosquito net with a rectangle cut out so I can see. But I’m constantly blowing mosquitos away. They’ll land on the painting and get stuck in the paint.”

Charron puts subliminal prayers or affirmations into his paintings. These messages are written in the gesso, or base layer, that he uses to prime the canvas. They are about the spiritual awakening of the world.

"All the paintings I do, I vision and come up with the message ... It’s like when you speak there’s a vibration and it’s going out into the universe and you can’t see it but it’s out there vibrating and moving," Charron said. "These are affirmations for the world’s highest and best good."