Meet 10 artists who seek inspiration en plein air
This story was featured in the June 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
In her former life, Mary Garrish was a dedicated ear, nose, and throat surgeon. But in 1994, Garrish began taking painting classes in her spare time, and she was soon smitten. By 2005, she decided that she was passionate enough about painting to retire from a 24-year career in medicine. Today Garrish is a full-time landscape painter. Fortunately for the plein-air painter, she calls Merritt Island, FL, home—a picturesque locale where the sky, clouds, and water serve as constant sources of inspiration. “I love the way the sky interfaces with the water,” Garrish says. “The different skies affect the surface of the water at different times of day, and there’s always a changing color palette.”
A longtime lover of the outdoors—she enjoys hiking and camping—the landscape seems a natural fit as her genre-of-choice. For Garrish nature is both her classroom and her teacher because, as she says, there is always something new to learn when painting on location. She harbors no regrets about leaving medicine but instead feels only gratitude that she discovered the joys of painting. “I feel like I have been truly blessed in this new career and in my first profession as a physician and caregiver,” Garrish says. “What is so great about art is that it is something I can do until the day I die. If you are intellectually curious, art is an incredible profession.”
The artist is represented by J.M. Stringer Gallery, Vero Beach, FL, and Bernardsville, NJ; Magnolia Art Gallery, Greensboro, GA; Corse Gallery & Atelier, Jacksonville, FL; and Stellers Gallery, Jacksonville, FL. —Bonnie Gangelhoff
After an award-winning career as an art director and designer for television and movies, Victoria Brooks left the media world to pursue a career in fine art. Following the birth of her children, Brooks studied oil painting for four years at the California Art Institute and fell in love with plein-air painting after a workshop with Matt Smith in the Grand Tetons.
“Painting en plein air has been one of the most frustrating, challenging, and extremely rewarding things I have done in a long time,” Brooks says. But that challenge has enhanced all aspects of her work, and she is now a signature member of the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society and the American Impressionist Society. She is also an accomplished teacher, offering oil-painting and plein-air workshops in Northern California and, for the last 10 years, in Italy, France, Greece, and Spain.
While teaching is rewarding for Brooks, her passion resides in her impressionistic interpretation of the energy she feels in her subjects, especially the reflective quality of water. “I want you to be able to get the feeling of the energy that I got when I saw what I was going to paint,” she explains. “When you are inspired to paint something, you want to keep that feeling throughout your painting.” Brooks is represented by Lawrence Gallery, Sheridan and Gleneden Beach, OR; Fairweather House & Garden, Seaside, OR; Auburn Old Town Gallery, Auburn, CA; and Patris Studio and Gallery, Sacramento, CA. —Joe Kovack
For Colorado native Susan McCullough, “plein-air painting is the ultimate artistic experience.” The artist spent her childhood years in Sterling, CO, a small city in the northeastern part of the state. When she was 13 years old, her family moved to the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, and the change in scenery ignited a deeper passion for art in McCullough. “The mountains were so inspiring to me that I began painting them as much as I could,” she says.
The natural beauty of Colorado and the Southwest continues to captivate McCullough, as evidenced in her plein-air landscapes of the region. While she also produces studio works, “plein-air painting has been my true love from the very beginning,” she says. The artist appreciates the unique challenges that arise while painting outdoors, but she also enjoys the work that takes place before the actual painting can begin: finding the perfect place to paint. “I love exploring, and sometimes it’s hard to stop because there are so many beautiful scenes to paint,” she says.
Clearly McCullough has no plans to stop working on her craft anytime soon—she continues to participate in plein-air events in both Colorado and New Mexico and has studied with award-winning artists such as Matt Smith, Ralph Oberg, Kevin Macpherson, and Stephen Datz. McCullough is represented by Earthwood Collections in Estes Park, CO; Gallery at the Windsor and Blue Dragonfly Gallery in Del Norte, CO; and Wilder Nightingale Fine Art in Taos, NM. —Lindsay Mitchell
Gene Costanza used to fight crime on the streets of small Oregon towns. These days, as a plein-air painter, he just battles bugs and weather—wind, dust, heat, and rain. “Given the nature of painting from life, where all of nature conspires to defeat you, it’s a fun fight every time,” Costanza says. “I’ve never had an easy painting, but the challenge is the siren call.”
In 2004, after retiring from the Eugene, OR, police department as a detective, Costanza devoted his days to a full-time career in fine art, taking workshops with top artists and painting miles of canvas as he depicted scenes that ranged from California’s Monterey peninsula to remote villages in southern China. The whole world is the landscape artist’s oyster, Costanza likes to tell people. “We, the landscape tribe of the art world, go and record the landscape even if it is just down the street,” he says. “Much is vanishing and changing, and it all needs to be painted.”
The Oregon-based artist says a viewer once told him that he liked to “watch” his landscapes. The comment continues to inspire Costanza: “If someone can tarry and wander through my painting, experience some joy by hanging out in my mind’s eye, and then maybe over time, return again and again to the painting, I’ve succeeded.” Costanza is represented by Principle Gallery, Charleston, SC; RS Hanna Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; and Burke Antiques, Sarasota, FL. —Bonnie Gangelhoff
Arizona artist Walter Porter never has to venture far from home to be inspired. The moment he steps out his front door in the Tucson Mountains, he is surrounded by potential paintings. “Even though I travel a lot, most of my paintings come from right here in Tucson and southern Arizona,” Porter says. “Tucson is such a beautiful place—the mountain scenes and streams are just gorgeous, and the landscape is so varied that it really doesn’t get old.”
Porter spent 20 years as a commercial illustrator before turning to painting full time. About 10 years ago he “stumbled into” plein-air painting and immediately wanted to try it. “In the commercial art world I was always working in the studio, so the idea of working from life really intrigued me,” he says. “It took me a while to get my feet wet in the plein-air world, but now it has become a real obsession of mine.” As Porter’s obsession with painting outdoors grew, so did his understanding of many important aspects of painting from life, such as value, color, light, hue, and the color temperature of paint. “I had trouble really seeing all the shadows and values in nature at first,” he says. “Now I see those aspects of nature everywhere.” Recently Porter has begun teaching plein-air workshops so that he can “share the beauty” of what he’s learned with others. He is represented by Geren Gallery in Tubac, AZ. —Lindsay Mitchell
Pastelist Lisa Skelly is infatuated with color. “I am a colorist,” she says, “and I love putting color down in a way that captivates the viewer.” The California-based plein-air painter recounts that her journey to fine art had its beginnings in graphic design and mural painting. “I painted my first mural in high school,” she says, and painting enormous images on walls never intimidated her. But in her transition to fine art, the smaller canvas stopped her. “I always felt that if a mural didn’t fly, I’d just paint over it,” she says, but with a fine-art painting she felt that anything she put on the canvas had to be perfect.
In her early artistic explorations, Skelly took classes at her local art-supply store and became enamored with the colors and feel of pastels. Because she likes the feeling of drawing and painting at the same time, they’ve become her go-to medium. When Skelly’s skills progressed beyond the art-store instructors, she was thrilled to discover plein-air colorist and instructor Camille Przewodek, who has instructed, inspired, and mentored her.
Today, Skelly paints figures and still lifes to improve herself as an artist, but it’s the plein-air landscape work—seascapes in particular—that are her favorite. “I love to paint water,” she says. “I am amazed at the way the water moves, and I want to capture that.” Skelly compares the colors and rhythms of the waves to a symphony, “like music translated into nature,” she says. Skelly’s work is available through Sonoma County ARTrails and www.lisaskelly.com. —Laura Rintala
Growing up in Pasadena, CA, Sherrill Miller spent many summers in Laguna Beach with her family. “Many of my grandmother’s friends were artists who had early paintings of Laguna Beach before it was developed,” Miller says. “This later influenced me to paint places that might disappear,” she adds.
Miller studied both art and psychology in college, but chose counseling as her profession for many years. Eventually she returned to painting landscapes as a way to connect with the environment. “I knew from the beginning I wanted to paint en plein air; I wanted to paint in the tradition of the French and California Impressionists,” says Miller, a longtime member of the California Art Club. Though the artist is primarily self-taught, when she began to paint on location she quickly realized she had “a lot to learn,” so she took workshops from artists she admires—including Ken Auster, Randall Sexton, and Van Waldron.
Today Miller’s passion for painting outdoors is as fervent as ever. “I love painting en plein air because I’m deeply moved by the beauty of places,” she says. Often the places that move her are those she knows best: Laguna Beach and Marin County. But no matter what scene she paints, Miller aims to convey the beauty and importance of nature and its preservation in her work. “I want to express the wonder and inspiration I feel when I’m in nature—and to evoke those same feelings in others,” she says. —Lindsay Mitchell
Rachel Uchizono has fond memories of growing up in Ithaca, NY, especially of summer days spent outdoors, exploring forests and swimming in Buttermilk Falls, and warm nights chasing fireflies and scooping them up in jars. Although she now lives on the West Coast, in Laguna Beach, CA—where the terrain is equally as beautiful—plein-air painting has given her a way to tap into those cherished earlier times, she says.
These days Uchizono is most likely to be found setting up her easel in the Laguna Canyon Wilderness Park amid the oak trees, or on the nearby beaches and bays that dot the Pacific coastline. A member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, the artist says the Golden State offers endless opportunities to capture the interplay of light and color in nature. Inspiration often stems from viewing the wild and undiscovered locations she discovers on her regular plein-air painting excursions.
Uchizono says her loose, impressionistic works are influenced by some of the early California Impressionists and plein-air painters, such as William Wendt and Hanson Puthuff, as well as by contemporary artists, such as Ray Roberts and Daniel Pinkham. “I want my paintings to express the passion and love I have for the outdoors and my need to share my view of the world,” Uchizono says. “I am what Joni Mitchell would call one of the Ladies of the Canyon.” The artist is represented by Studio 7 Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA. —Bonnie Gangelhoff
“I love things with stories,” says California painter John White. While some artist are inspired to capture aesthetics or scenes of startling beauty, White says often what hooks him is the narrative or story behind a scene. For example, one afternoon at a plein-air festival when he was feeling burned out and uninspired, White sat down near a fountain where some children were playing. Their mother, sitting nearby, told White about the fountain’s long history as the place to cool off in the summer. She had played in it when she was a child, she said, as had her parents. It was this history and the fountain’s long cultural significance that inspired White to pull out his paints and capture the scene.
White’s plein-air and studio paintings begin with an eye-catching focal element, and then his years in advertising and design go to work. “Basic design is automatically incorporated,” he says, “the composition, the way the eye moves through the piece, and the cropping.” After decades working in that highly competitive field, White says he’s lightening up and taking his subject matter less seriously. But while he’s having fun with titles and subject matter, White remains tenaciously committed to improving his art and his skill with every painting. “I feel like I’m playing catch-up,” he says, lamenting his late start into fine art. “I really want to be good. Am I going to make it?” White’s work is available through C.C. Gallagher, Avalon, CA, and Crystal Cove Store, Newport Coast, CA. —Laura Rintala
Since 2000, Karen Leoni has nurtured a love of plein-air painting in Northern California. In 1989 Leoni left Atlanta, GA, and moved to the Bay Area, and the natural beauty of her surroundings awakened her love for painting. For the last 14 years, she has focused on this landscape and the figures—human or animal—that inhabit it. “I feel very fortunate to live in California surrounded by the magnificent landscape with its endless variety,” Leoni says. “I do plein air because I love being outside, and it allows me to be with friends outdoors. How much better does it get than that?”
An award winner and signature member of the Monterey Bay Plein Air Painters Association and a member of the Oil Painters of America, Leoni’s self-described contemporary impressionistic style is a result of her studies at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and workshops with her mentor, Huihan Liu. Working primarily in oils, Leoni focuses on the abstract qualities that go into her works. “Some of the hardest things about plein air are editing and unity,” Leoni admits. “Is it about the trees, the water, the rocks, or the hills in the back? It’s the editing that gives focus. And with experience comes the color harmony and brushwork, and I think together, eventually, you can produce something of unity.” Leoni is represented by Lyons Head Gallery, Carmel Valley, CA; Grace Collection, St. Augustine, FL; Renditions Fine Art Gallery, Walnut Creek, CA; and Spa Fine Art, Saratoga Springs, NY. —Joe Kovack
Featured in the June 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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