Why Sonoma County painters work outside

Who wouldn’t want to be a plein air painter working in a rural landscape as beautiful as Sonoma County’s? Out there hiking the gloriously rugged and unspoiled landscape, immersed, surrounded, soaking it up?

En plein air, the French term for working outside, evokes the art of legendary French Impressionists such as Claude Monet and his colleagues Pissarro and Renoir who helped pioneer the spontaneous and portable plein air movement that blossomed in the late 1800s. Being able to set up your studio just about anywhere out-of-doors was facilitated by the development of commercially produced pigments sold in toothpaste-size tubes you could stuff in your pockets. Easier access to paint and the arrival of the lightweight French box easel enabled formerly housebound artists to get out of their studios, soak up the sunshine and try to capture the fleeting radiance of nature.

Plein air painters like to talk about getting things right, ever on the lookout for a wonderful coincidence of light, landscape and luck that will give them what local plein air painter Gerald de Rios calls “that golden hour.”

What’s the big deal? What’s the defining experience of working outside? “There’s just something about it,” said de Dios. “It’s a race against time. The light is changing and shadows are moving. You have to be there.”

I met de Dios on a warm Sunday morning this summer at Petaluma’s Shollenberger Park where painters from the North Bay Plein Air group had gathered to work. By late morning the day’s 90-degree heat already dominated the landscape even though we were out in bay wetlands along the Petaluma River. Owing to season and California’s drought, the park’s large central pond was parched and empty. I could imagine getting heat stroke out here on a day like this.

“It’s too hot and dry,” said one artist scouting the territory prior to unloading painting gear from her car. “There’s no water,” she said, finally leaving her stuff in the trunk and driving off, waving goodbye to her fellow brothers and sisters in art.

Plein air painters have to get used to the rigors of painting in adversarial conditions ranging from fog and wind to hot sun and chatty spectators. On windy afternoons, particularly near the coast, “We’ve had painters chase their easels down,” said de Dios, one of the founders of the North Bay Plein Air group that’s been painting together since 2009.

Painting outdoors requires planning for weather, terrain and personal comfort. When your studio is wherever you want it to be, perhaps atop a coastal ridge or out in a vineyard, it’s a no-brainer that you need to travel light.

These painters lugged their gear — easels, paint boxes, tripods and umbrellas — packed on rolling luggage carriers. De Dios, who works in watercolor as well as oils, pastels and gouache, has a plein-air, water-color kit of brushes and paint that’s so portable “I can just throw it in my cargo shorts,” said de Dios, dressed in a blue shirt, floppy sun hat, cargo shorts and New Balance running shoes.
Working on a warm day mixing water colors can be a challenge “just trying to keep your palette wet,” said de Dios, who carried a plastic squirt bottle for moistening dry pigments.

The artists at Shollenberger checked out one another’s portable hardware with an eye toward self-improvement. “That looks much heavier duty than mine,” said de Dios, admiring a clamp on another artist’s easel. The consensus on gear among the painters seems to be: “Buy good tools.”
“I’ve spent so much money on junk,” said one woman.
“This is how we learn,” said another.

These artists weren’t all acquainted with each other but there was a sense of brotherhood, or sisterhood, of mutual support and a shared mission. One artist had forgotten to bring paper towels; “I have some,” said a colleague.

They set blank canvasses on pochade boxes supported by tripods and went to work. They were looking southwest, across the Highway 101 freeway, painting a dry golden brown hill adorned with clumps of green trees.

Joggers trotted past and dragonflies darted above the dry stubble surrounding the parched lakebed. Four middle-aged women sitting at their easels in proximity of four feet to several yards worked quietly and with rapt concentration. It was almost like a small meditative picnic except rather than eating lunch they were painting the countryside.

One of the painters at Shollenberger was Linda Rosso, a former public relations executive who said she likes to paint with other artists rather than alone because “I like to talk to people.” Another priority for Rosso is proximity to basic needs. “There has to be a restroom and a restaurant within walking distance.”

Rosso said she doesn’t always finish a painting in one sitting, a method known as alla prima. “Generally you have a window of time before the light changes too much,” said Rosso. “Sometimes you have to come back.”

Last year Rosso was accepted as artist-in-residence at Healdsburg’s Chalk Hill Artist Residency program at the prestigious Warnecke Ranch. The North Bay Plein Air group has painted there too, as invited guests. It was one of the group’s biggest turnouts, with more than 60 artists attending.
“It was great,” said Rosso, of her Chalk Hill residency. She got to work on the 265-acre vineyard last spring, painting “just as the buds were breaking.”

Where to see some art
When this year’s week-long Sonoma Plein Air painting competition gets under way on Sept. 15, one of the working artists will be Sergio Lopez, a versatile Sonoma County painter who won Sonoma Plein Air’s “Artists’ Choice” honors last year for best work.

Sonoma Plein Air 2014, which runs from Sept. 15 through 20, started 10 years ago as a weeklong live-painting event “celebrating the century-old technique of outdoor painting,” said organizers. A jury of art professionals and artists select 36 artists from hundreds of applications received for the competition. Participants include “local and nationally recognized award-winning outdoor painters from California and across the country,” noted the Sonoma Plein Air website, sonomapleinair.com. “This juried event brings nationally recognized plein air artists to Sonoma for a week of painting the inspiring landscapes of Sonoma Valley. Whether it is the magnificent green hills with giant oaks, grazing sheep and cows, winding roads, picturesque villages, or the colors and scents of wildflowers – Sonoma Valley is paradise for plein air artists.”

Sonoma Plein Air begins on September 15 when artists arrive in Sonoma. Participating artists wishing accommodations are assigned to private homes for their six-day stay. They are treated to several gourmet lunches at painting locations. The artists paint throughout the week in Sonoma County. A gala dinner with the artists and art auction is held Friday night, Sept. 19. Each artist brings his or her best work of the week to be sold at the silent auction.

The artists vote on their choice of best painting and the “Artists’ Choice Award” is announced with the Artists’ Choice painting offered for sale that evening in a live auction.

The annual gathering culminates on Sept. 20 at Sonoma’s historic town plaza for the art exhibition and sale. Art lovers and collectors from across the United States mingle with the artists from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the plaza. “The sun glows through the turning leaves of trees as soothing live music creates the perfect setting for the exhibition,” said the show’s advance publicity. “Art created during the week is exhibited and offered for sale. The non-profit all-volunteer Sonoma Plein Air Foundation presents this annual event designed to be “casual, interactive and educational.” Admission is free.
Sergio Lopez also has a three-person show opening in October entitled “The Traveling Painters.” Two other plein air artists, Paul Kratter and Bart Walker, will join him for the exhibit at the Christopher Queen Gallery in Duncans Mills.

Christopher Queen’s Nancy Ferreira opened her landmark Duncans Mills gallery 38 years ago and has created a remarkable space to get a sense of who’s who among past and present plein air artists working in Sonoma County. Sergio Lopez’s work is well represented there along with contemporary plein air work by Kratter, Walker, Wanda Westberg, Jack Cassinetto and others.
At age 31, Lopez is the gallery’s youngest artist. “We’re very proud of him,” said Tiare Giardina, of Christopher Queen. “We’ve done fantastic with him.”

Lopez connected with Ferreira’s gallery a few years ago after stopping in to see what Christopher Queen was all about. “It must have been back in 2007 or 2008. I wasn’t familiar with any galleries like that in Sonoma County,” said Lopez. “At the time I hadn’t done a whole lot of landscape painting. I went over and checked it out. I talked to Nancy and showed her my work.
“She was interested. She saw that I had potential. It took maybe another couple of years, going back in and showing her what I was up to. Eventually she took me on after she thought that I was ready to show there.”

Fellow plein air artist and instructor Quang Ho mentioned Lopez recently when delivering the keynote speech at a plein air exhibit in San Luis Obispo. “Keep an eye out for this young man,” said Quang Ho. “He is a painter.”   SD

Story by Frank Robertson
Photo by Joe Barkoff