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Exposed to the Elements: the Evolution of Plein Air Painting on the Central California Coast

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What makes California's Central Coast an irresistible destination for artists?

"It's the light," said Karen Kile, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. "There's something about the ocean air that comes up the valley that makes a beautiful light. It just gives the painters goosebumps."

The art of painting "en plein air" -- French for "in the open air" -- is the focus of two events this year: the Paso Robles Festival of the Arts, held Memorial Day weekend in northern San Luis Obispo County, and the San Luis Obispo Plein Air Festival in early October. Now in its fourth year, the Paso Robles festival features three days of art shows, workshops, talks and other events, including a special exhibition and panel discussion honoring "Plein Air Masters," and a keynote address by Stephen Doherty, editor-in-chief of Plein Air Magazine.

One popular event, the Plein Air Quick Draw, finds 30 artists racing against the clock to create works of art which are then auctioned off to the highest bidder. Anne Laddon, founder of Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, praised this year's participants - a mix of local luminaries and visiting stars -- as "top-of-the-line painters." I told my friends, 'You guys better bring your checkbooks,'" she quipped.

First popularized in the mid-19th century by French Impressionists including Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, plein air painting soon spread to the rest of Europe and the United States, where the informal outdoor style was adopted by the likes of Winslow Homer, Thomas Hill and William Merrit Chase. By the turn of the century, California plein air artists had established colonies in Carmel-by-the-Sea and Laguna Beach, operating out of the Bay Area, Pasadena and Los Angeles until the 1930s.

Today, artists still follow the seasons - and that alluring light - out west. According to Kile, those "gypsy painters" flock first to the East Coast in the early summer, eventually pushing past the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains to arrive in California in the fall.

"We're one of the places where plein air is still loved," Kile said of the Central Coast, noting that artists are attracted by the region's warm, sunny weather and stunning vistas. John Cosby, Ken Christensen and Elizabeth "Libby" Tolley are among the nationally acclaimed plein air artists who call the Central Coast home.

Laddon, who began her career as a graphic designer for a San Francisco ad agency, spent roughly a decade working as a printmaker at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va., before moving to the Central Coast in 1984. "It's so beautiful around here," said Laddon, who uses oil paints and pastels to capture those lovely landscapes.

"From the artist side, it's so exciting and invigorating," said Laddon, who's drawn to "the freshness, the spontaneity" of plein air painting. "Some of my best (works) are done by the seat of my pants in the field. Other ones get touched up and fussed over; they lose that energy sometimes."

Although plein air purists demand that all work is completed in a single session, other artists prefer to finish their paintings in the studio with the help of sketches or photos. Still, Laddon said, it's not the same as being there.

"You cannot paint from a photograph the same thing you can paint from a real thing," Laddon said. "Photographs lie. They completely tweak the image. They flatten the landscape. These two beautiful eyes we have cannot be matched."

San Luis Obispo painter Dotty Hawthorne, co-owner of The Gallery at the Network in San Luis Obispo, agreed that photos can skew the viewer's perspective, draining the subtle colors in shadows and distorting the height of hills.

That's not to say that plein air artists don't occasionally tweak their surroundings.

"You've got a lot of power as a painter," Hawthorne acknowledged. "It depends on the composition. Sometimes you need those grooves in the ground. Sometimes you need the fencepost. Sometimes you need a telephone pole. And sometimes they're completely irrelevant."

Although she's drawn visually to winding country roads and neat rows of wine grapes, the painter also seeks to paint more pristine landscapes relatively untouched by humans. "One big thing about being a 21st century painter is honoring the open spaces we have," said Hawthorne, an active member of San Luis Outdoor Painters for the Environment, or, SLOPE.

Conservation and preservation have become important watchwords in today's plein air community, Doherty said. "Everyone is a lot more conscious of the importance of nature in our lives," he said. "Going out to paint (those landscapes) is an obvious way of being involved in that effort."

At the same time that some artists are seeking to preserve those majestic open spaces, he added, others are dedicated to chronicling the effects of development and urban decay.

"As painters in big urban areas, they're very conscious of the fact that ... they're documenting what is disappearing," said Doherty, whether it's a dirt road swallowed up by a freeway or an apple orchard bulldozed to make way for apartment buildings. "Some painters deliberately go in search of a Wal-Mart parking lot because they feel like it's a more honest way of portraying reality."

Take Pasadena painter William Wray, whose urban landscapes feature alleyways, office buildings and parking lots, or Harlem artist Montserrat Daubón, known for her vivid, gritty cityscapes. Both are past participants of the weeklong San Luis Obispo Plein Air Festival, now in its 11th year.

According to Doherty, there's room for all types in the plein air community. Plein Air Magazine's readership ranges from ardent environmentalists to devout artists who find divine inspiration outdoors to rugged outdoorsmen who hike into the Sierra Mountains with tents, campstools and paint boxes strapped to their backs.

Doherty, who has led painting exhibitions to a Connecticut farm, a Colorado ranch and a French chateau, has even been known to pack art supplies on business trips. "It's a way of spending the hours when nothing is scheduled to happen," explained the editor, who spent more than 30 years as the editor of American Artist magazine before launching the current incarnation of Plein Air Magazine with publisher Eric Rhoads in February 2011. Published every two months, the magazine caters to about 12,000 readers via print and online versions, Facebook, Twitter and a weekly electronic newsletter.

Interest in plein air art doesn't show any signs of waning, Doherty said.

"There's a theory that the more digital the world becomes, there's a great appreciation for the handmade," he said. "In some ways, the world we live in creates a greater appreciation for making something that's uniquely your own."

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Top Image: Figure by Kroll Roberts.

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