Not Satisfied With Pretty Pictures of Pleasant Days : Artists Seek After Nature's Fickle Moods

Times Staff Writer

In art as in life, the driving forces behind high achievement are commitment and hard work infused with a spiritual perception of one's mission, according to a group of outdoor painters struggling for a foothold in the South Bay's uncertain cultural terrain.

The achievement sought by the young artists, they say, is to revive the 19th-Century "plein-air" school of painting favored by such artists as Monet and Van Gogh in their outdoor work, and then mix it with the "more documentary" style of Issak Levitan, a Russian landscape artist of the same era.

In leaving behind the comfort of a studio or home and going out into nature, the artists hope to capture on canvas their own vision of reality.

"We're not looking to paint a pretty picture on a pleasant day," said Dan Pinkham, a 32-year-old ex-plumber who lives in Palos Verdes Estates and is the senior artist in the small group of artists and their students. "You have to struggle with nature and learn from it before it will reveal any secrets.

"What we're trying to do is capture a fleeting mood in terms of colors, textures and shapes. It's a feeling we have for that particular place and day, perhaps a sense that there is something beyond this life."

Racing Nature

Pinkham said outdoor artists must work fast to record their first impressions of a scene before it is obscured by rapid changes in shadows, color intensities, the wind and other subtle factors.

"Each passing minute takes us farther away from that moment when we felt something special about a place," he said. "It's a race to get it right before that first impression slips away."

At its best, he said, the struggle goes on when nature is in one of its most difficult moods, a time when studio artists and dabblers run for cover. Pinkham's group welcomes rain, hail, high winds, bone-chilling cold.

"There's an incredible excitement," Pinkham said. "We put ponchos over our heads and we have to tie down everything so it doesn't blow away. We're constantly shaking water off the canvas or blotting it with paper towels. I have the feeling that if I can get in just one more piece, it will make the difference in the final result."

Amy Sidrane, 26, of Redondo Beach, agreed that there's a "real high" when the going is toughest. "It's like walking hand in hand with God and the elements," she said. "The only time I'm in trouble is when my fingers start to stiffen up. But then I can wear mittens, or just a pair of wool stockings with the finger tips cut off."

In one locale, she recalled, the problem was not with the weather, but with swarms of gnats. "Thousands of them got stuck in the paint and became a part of the picture," she said. "Whenever I look at it now, the presence of the gnats helps bring back the feeling of that place."

Pinkham and Sidrane both graduated from Palos Verdes High School--several years apart--and then began working together on the plein-air technique while taking lessons from Sergei Bongart, a Russian immigrant artist with studios in Santa Monica and Idaho.

"We're just starting," Pinkham said. "We've got a few people in this area and one in Colorado, but I think we're onto something here that will have an impact. A lot of professionals say our work is different from anything they're seeing currently."

Developing Own Style

He acknowledged that landscape painting is as old as art itself, but contended that his group is developing its own style.

"It's like fingerprints," he said. "Each of us is unique. And as for being different, I think that just being good at what you're doing is a difference that can be important. We put a lot of emphasis on craftsmanship."

Pinkham said there is a strong interest in landscape painting among South Bay artists, but he said few of them venture outside with their easels. "There is a fear of muggings, and even experienced artists may feel intimidated when people come up and look over their shoulders," he said.

Pinkham and Sidrane extolled the South Bay, particularly the Peninsula, as an ideal setting for painting, but the area's generally benign climate offers few unusual challenges. So whenever they have enough money for gas and other traveling expenses, members of the group pack up their paint boxes in Pinkham's ancient Ford panel truck--a leftover from his years as a Palos Verdes plumbing contractor--and head out for Big Sur, Canada, Idaho, or wherever else they can find an interesting scene to paint.

Where Monet Stood

Last year, five members of the group toured Europe. "In France, I stood where Monet stood, and I stood for two days in the rain to paint Venice," Pinkham said. "It was great."

Two of the artists stayed in the Italian Alps, leaving Pinkham, Sidrane and Ted Pressett, 28, of Culver City, to continue the tour in their Renault station wagon. "That last month we lived and slept in the station wagon," said Pinkham, who abandoned the family plumbing business in 1978 to pursue art full time. "I learned a lot about how little we need to do the things that are important. Going after the material things can be like death for the creative mind."

The struggling plein-air artists appear to be in little immediate danger of such an end. They said they get by on occasional sales--although there is no central location where their art is shown--an art prize now and then and fees from their students. Sidrane said she supported herself for years as a supermarket checker, but lost the job when she took time out for the tour of Europe. (The artists' work from that tour is being shown at the Monterey Peninsula Art Museum in Monterey until about the middle of March.)

"Being hard up pushes you more," she said. "But it certainly does simplify one's life."

South Bay Environment

Pinkham offered a mixed view of the South Bay cultural environment: a "fair number" of serious painters, lots of hobbyists and very few patrons willing to sponsor individual artists.

"It's commercially oriented, basically," he said. "Most people focus on their cars, homes, jobs--things that give them a sense of security, but not necessarily a sense of beauty and meaning.

"It's not like Europe, where everybody seems to love art. Even a bag lady will come up and watch you paint and maybe offer you something for the picture."

But, Pinkham added, "the potential is here. We always try to think and speak in a positive way and I believe that attitude will bring us the future we're working for."

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