On the block for Plein Air

Thomas Jefferson Kitts is inspired by nature.

Also, given a choice, he prefers not to rely on memories, photographs or drawings.

The result? A prolific 30-year career as a plein air painter.

An avid follower of John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla and Anders Zorn, the Portland resident is driven by the challenges posed by this style of painting. He stands in agreement with Paul Cézanne's words: "Nature is the best instructor."

"It simply comes down to the fact that the world is more complex a place than anything I can make up in my head — I become lost in it as I paint," said Kitts, 52. "It's the closest I can come to God."

Kitts is one of 40 plein air painters who donated original work to the Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn. (LPAPA) for its first-ever spring art auction and fundraiser dubbed "Canvas for a Cause." Funds raised at the Woman's Club of Laguna Beach from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday will benefit the organization's operations and programs.

"Our purpose is to serve our artists and be the torch-bearer for the foundational plein air heritage of Laguna Beach," said LPAPA president Gregory Vail.

Alongside a wine and cheese reception, guests will be treated to a silent auction in which the minimum bid is $350 on artwork otherwise priced in excess of $2,500, according to Vail. Preparations began in earnest in December.

The need for funds is more than ever, he said, as LPAPA is on the verge of hosting the weeklong Laguna Beach Plein Air Invitational independent of the Laguna Art Museum, for which more than $200,000 is necessary.

Kitts, who, with the support of his grandmother, has been painting and drawing longer than he can remember, can't imagine a life without art, which he compares to a drug. He also clearly remembers starting out as a plein air artist in 1984 when knowledge about the craft was hard to come by, as were others with experience in the field.

"Today, plein air is everywhere — its popularity astounds me, but I remember a time when no one even knew what it meant," said Kitts, who venerates Southern California Impressionists William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Guy Rose and Franz Bischoff. "People used to ask me, 'You go out to paint? Really?'"

Vail seconded the viewpoint, adding that Laguna Beach marked the nerve center for plein air work in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Acknowledging the strong influence of the Irvine Museum and Laguna Art Museum, he said, "Laguna's landscape and light are ideal for plein air painting — [it] is world-renowned for this."

Keenly aware that constant movements of the sun change the way we look at our surroundings, Kitts believes that plein air painters "have to paint rapidly, pay attention and accept when things don't work as well."

He kept this mantra close at hand while creating "Adobe Garden" at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Kitts recently reworked the 16-by-20 inch piece — which he first finished, and showcased, at the annual Plein Air Invitational in 2011 — in his studio before contributing it to "Canvas for Cause."

Drawing a distinction between plein air alla prima (Italian for "at first attempt") and studio-finished, Kitts is known to start and finish a painting in one sitting, as well as spend multiple days reworking the same piece. In the coming year, he plans to devote more of his time to the latter, which allows the oil paints to dry before more work is done.

Kitts' work will be joined by that of Jeff Sewell, 46, at the fundraiser Saturday. The Laguna Beach resident particularly enjoys the spontaneity embodied by plein air painting.

"I just love the outdoors, and we get to stand with our feet in the sand; Laguna Beach is beautiful, so it's a thrill to be painting here," said Sewell, who seeks to reflect moments, temperature and time via his paintings.

He decided to give back to LPAPA, where he has been a member for nearly nine years, in the form of a 10-by-8-inch oil painting called "Afternoon Tide," composed at Crystal Cove State Park.

"Our group is trying to reestablish itself and develop an educational outreach and mentorship program that requires a good deal of support," Sewell said. "We are trying to get enough funds for our events during the rest of the year, and 'Canvas for a Cause' is a nice charity event for LPAPA to survive."

Deeming the chance to participate a "privilege," Sewell also plans to leave with a new acquisition by one of the many "nationally recognized, award-winning artists" who will be on display, he said.

Likewise, Kitts, who will be unable to attend, believes that it is rare for art enthusiasts to receive such immense bargains.

"It's a terrific opportunity for collectors to come and get a deal," he said.

If You Go

What: Laguna Plein Air Painters Association's "Canvas for a Cause"

Where: Woman's Club of Laguna Beach, 286 St. Ann's Drive, Laguna Beach

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday

Cost: Free

Information: http://www.lpapa.org/

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