Summer’s weather and sunny afternoons lure people outdoors. That goes for Benicia’s plein air artists, too. “A sunny day does encourage a plein air painter to go outside and paint,” said Catherine Fasciato, a member of Benicia Plein Air Gallery, 307 First St.
“Painting en plein air is easy once you get accustomed to your equipment, and is much more enjoyable than studio work,” she said. One of Fasciato’s favorite memories is painting in Jamaica at Randy Sexton’s workshop—and winning a prize at the Carmel Art Festival.
The wind off the scenic Carquinez Strait can be challenging, so Fasciato has tips: “Wearing lots of layers and easels that are good on the wind.” Oil painter Iris Sabre ignores heat, cold, hunger or thirst. But wind can turn her canvas “into a sail.” Still, she loves being a plein air artist. “It is another way of experiencing the outdoors and becoming immersed in the environment. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by the beauty of it all that it seems like the ultimate conceit to try to interpret it with paint on canvas.”
The Bay Area’s famous fog “can be beautiful, and it has its own special challenges for light. In fog, there are no pronounced shadows. In deep fog, you can not see much of anything.” Although inland sites can be hot, they have golden hills bathed in extremes of light and shadow, said Sabre.
Plein air painters must think ahead, she said. She first paints elements most likely to change and sticks to her original arrangement. “Nothing holds still … the shadows move with the sun,” she said. “I’m considered a fast painter—I usually complete a work outdoors in about three hours.” While she recommends classes and workshops, Sabre said, “The only way to get proficient at plein air painting is to do it a lot.”
Mary Lou Correia sometimes sees wildlife on her plein air adventures. During a class at Matthew Turner Cove, she said, “I was blessed by bald eagles feeding among the shore birds as I painted.” Early one morning in Mendocino, she watched resting bobcats. At Yellowstone, she saw bison, and at Yosemite, a mother bear and her cubs. She couldn’t resist photographing them.
Sometimes painters themselves are photographed. Fasciato chats with spectators, lets them photograph her, then gives them her card, “so that they can send me the photo.”
Some interruptions are distracting, a few said, but it’s also fun to talk with admirers.
Judith Kunzle said summer’s bright light not only affects artists, it can make their paper or canvas blinding white. Some painters use sun umbrellas, but Kunzle turns to nature. “It’s best to find a spot in the shade while looking out into the wonderful contrasts of bright sunlight and deep, colorful shadows,” she said. Kunzle’s a watercolorist, and summer’s warmth helps her paint quickly. “I can work spontaneously without having to wait too long for the washes and paper to dry.” Painting outdoors, in country settings or those with urban or industrial scenery, is exciting because of the challenges, she said. “And, yes, it does motivate to keep cracking and to work fast.”
Artists look at colors and the quality of light and shadow. “We intuitively choose colors to represent what we see—or we intentionally play with color for an interesting composition or to express what we feel,” said Kunzle, adding that “Plein air painting isn’t something you do once and take off, but if you persevere, it will always be fascinating.
It’s never the same, even if you paint in the same spot several times,” she said. Every day has different light and colors. When you start painting and drawing outside, you really start seeing things! There is no better way to spend a beautiful day than setting up your easel and paint.”