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‘It’s like Christmas’: Artists get ready to battle sun and wind at Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational

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The steady hand of artist Kathleen Robison paints the beach at Rockpile in this file photo. The Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational will be held Oct. 8-16.
(Don Leach | Weekend)

Dozens of artists from around the country will soon flock to the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, one of California’s largest outdoor painting events.

While the tradition of outdoor painting began in Europe about 175 years ago — “plein air” is French for “open air” — Laguna Beach has since become one of the most popular destinations for plein air painters, thanks to the picturesque ocean views and abundance of long, sunny days.

Now, the invitational, which runs Oct. 8-16, provides a venue for many of the nation’s top plein air landscape painters, and educates the community through lectures, school programs and gallery sales about the art form that helped shape the history of Laguna Beach.

“For me it’s like Christmas,” said April Raber, a Laguna Beach-based plein air painter invited to this year’s event. “It’s such a treat to see all this beautiful work. It’s amazing what people can do on the fly, when the sun is in your eyes, and you’re miserable because it’s too hot or too cold or it’s windy.”

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Unlike working in a studio, where light and environmental conditions can be controlled, plein air painters become a part of the natural environment they’re trying to capture, so they often have to contend with weather, changing light and even wildlife.

Raber, for example, said that one time while painting in the mountains, a family of mice carried off her paintbrushes after she set them down on a rock. Another time she arrived at her painting site and realized she had forgotten her paintbrushes, and instead of turning around to go home, she used twigs.

“You develop a lot of interesting techniques when things go wrong out there in the field,” she said.

But the biggest challenge in plein air painting is capturing the natural light.

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“You have to be quick to paint outside because the light is constantly changing,” said Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum. “After a couple of hours, it’s really a different painting all together that you’re working on.”

As a result, plein air paintings are “more impressionistic because of the fast-paced strokes they have to do to catch the light,” explained Rosemary Swimm, executive director of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn., which sponsors the Invitational every year.

To buy more time, many artists create a smaller version of their painting outside, then expand it into a full-sized work in a studio, while others go to the same site at the same time several days in a row.

But, Swimm said, plein air offers something the studio never will: “a truer sense of color.”

Plein air painting began in the mid-1800s after the invention of the collapsible paint tubes in 1841, said Stern, which allowed painters to more easily take their supplies outside. By the 1860s and 1870s, the style was adopted by French impressionist painters, and was later picked up by American artists abroad.

Because outdoor painting depends on natural light, plein air painters flocked to warm areas that offered long days and an abundance of bright sunlight, which in the United States meant Southern California.

By the 1890s, artists were moving to the Los Angeles area, and by the 1900s, many of them started heading even farther south to Laguna Beach. Soon, the coastal city became a “well-known place where artists would bring their friends and paint,” Stern said.

In 1918, these artists formed the Laguna Beach Art Assn. and purchased land for a permanent gallery, which today is the Laguna Beach Art Museum on Cliff Drive.

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“The original founders and [plein air] artists in the early 1900s were the ones who gave Laguna Beach its reputation as an artistic colony,” Stern said. “And then hundreds and hundreds of artists of all varieties began coming to Laguna Beach right after World War II — not just plein air painters, but every kind of artists, sculptors, ceramics and photographers.”

While plein air painting briefly went out of style for several decades in the mid-1900s — when abstract expressionism took over American art — Laguna Beach continues to be an outdoor painter’s paradise.

“The coastline is remarkable,” said Gil Dellinger, a Laguna Beach-based painter participating in the Invitational. “There’s a spot near Ralphs downtown with a view, and if you turn 10 degrees, there’s another view. Turn another 10 degrees and there’s another view. There’s no end to the magnificence.”

For more information about the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational schedule and events, visit lagunapleinair.org.

caitlin.kandil@latimes.com


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