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Plein Air Painting

Artist Linda Steine of Holmen, loads her brush as she works on her painting during the Plein Air Painting Between the Bluffs Quick Paint competition. More than 30 artists participated in the sixth annual celebration of plein air painting in the La Crosse region.

Leisa Luis-Grill would prefer a full day to work on an oil painting, but despite the time constraint of the plein air Quick Paint competition, her stress was at a minimum.

Basking in the sun and listening to the gentle bubbling of the fountain near the Waterfront Restaurant, Luis-Grill was focused but serene as she put the finishing touches on her rendition of the downtown fountain, her focal point of choice for the timed contest. Part of the 2018 Plein Air Between the Bluffs festival, participants in the Quick Paint challenge were given 2 ½ hours to complete a work in oil, acrylic or pastel, produced from start to finish in a downtown outdoor setting.

The Plein Air Between the Bluffs festival, now on its sixth year, kicked off Monday with a pastel demonstration in Myrick Park, followed by a watercolor lesson on Friday. Yesterday’s Quick Paint contest, which drew 12 entrants, will be followed by an oil painting demo on Wednesday, and the festival will conclude with a gallery night from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21, at Studio Gallery, 1311 Market St.

The gallery will display works from about 30 artists, including those from the Quick Paint contest, with all featured paintings having been completed in the duration of the two week festival and painted entirely outdoors, within a 15-mile radius of downtown La Crosse.

“En plein air,” the act of painting in nature, offers unique challenges, says festival organizer Mike Martino, challenges magnified by time limits of the Quick Paint. Keeping up with the shifts in natural light is a common struggle, and artists must be simultaneously fast-paced and fastidious.

“You have to work really focused and as quick as possible but still try to catch everything,” Martino said.

Luis-Grill, of Rochester, normally dedicates a solid eight hours to an oil painting but found the whittled time frame gave her a more disciplined eye.

“It makes you think about what is essential,” Luis-Grill said. “As painters, sometimes we put too much down.”

Her completed canvas, spotlighting the fountain and showing the Cass Street Bridge and Mississippi River in the background, caught the attention of John Erickson, a landscape painter and judge of the Quick Paint competition. Erickson awarded Luis Grill the third-place $50 prize, citing the painting’s harmonious and accurate color scheme.

Winning painting by Jeff Dickson

Jeff Dickson took first place in the plein art Quick Paint competition Saturday with his rendition of his wife and daughter sitting in the grass. 

Using the criterion of composition, design, pleasing color and interesting subject matter, Erickson selected Paul Bergquist’s depiction of a train near Riverside Park for the $100 second place prize, and Jeff Dickson’s portrait of his wife, Jill, and daughter, Ali, lounging on the grass for first.

“The figurative work is unusual for an outdoor painting,” Erickson said of Dickson’s $200 win.

A simple and elegant rendition of the two females, Jill barefoot and wearing a straw hat and Ali leaning back on her arms, the painting was one of only two entries to contain a human figure. It was a conscious choice by Dickson, one that gave him the winning edge.

Dickson has participated in the plein air festival for the past three years, and, despite the heat and mosquitoes proving a nuisance, finds working outdoors helpful.

“It has every advantage you can think of,” Dickson said, noting that working from a print image, with distorted color and sharpness, detracts from a painting’s realism. “So many nuances you can’t capture in a photograph.”

Calling his first-place win “an honor, a real honor,” Dickson praised the festival, sponsored by the La Crosse Arts Initiative, for inspiring and encouraging creativity.

“The arts have immeasurable benefits,” Dickson said. “’Earth’ without ‘art’ is just ‘eh.”

Making art accessible and enjoyable is a main goal for the festival, Martino says. Whereas galleries and museums can be “intimidating,” art lovers expert and novice alike are welcome to participate in the festival’s contests, demonstrations and viewings, all centered on the lush landscapes and natural features of the Coulee Region.

“Everyone in La Crosse can appreciate the beauty of nature,” Martino said.

For more information on the Plein Air Between the Bluffs festival, visit

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Emily Pyrek can be reached at


General assignment reporter

Emily Pyrek covers human interest stories, local events and anything involving dogs for the La Crosse Tribune. She is always interested in story ideas and can be contacted at

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