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Paint The Peninsula Festival Celebrates Joy Of Painting Outside

Jennifer Wing
Artist Susan Ogilvie is seen at work near Dungeness Spit.

The clouds hang low over the water along a quiet stretch of gravelly beach in the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sequim, Washington. A sailboat silently glides past and a clear creek runs into the strait. A gang of seagulls stands at the watery crossroads, preening their feathers.

Perched on a grassy overlook capturing this on a small canvas of balsa wood is plein air artist Sandy Byers. Painting en plein air is the French term that simply means painting outside — something artists have been doing for hundreds of years.

“The events surrounding me when I’m painting plein air find their way into the painting somehow, like the sounds of the seagulls or the sound of people working in their boats in the background,” Byers says. “It all becomes part of that experience of painting that’s different than it is in the studio.”

In a few days, Byers will join dozens of other artists to compete in the second annual Paint The Peninsula event based out of Port Angeles, Washington. People will fan out from Sequim to the Hoh Rain Forest to practice the art of plein air.  

‘All The Pictures Painted Inside … Will Never Be As Good’

When Byers first tried painting outside the comfort of her studio, she found the bugs, the sun and the sand on the beach where she set up her easel to be overwhelming. But after trying it a few more times, she became a convert.

“Honestly, the Paint the Peninsula event has pretty much changed my artistic life,” she says.

Before photography, plein air paintings were how people saw remote places around the world. Monet and other impressionists swore by it.

In fact, Paul Cezanne put it this way to his good friend, Emile Zola: But you know, all the pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as the things done outside.”

‘Artists Will Paint With Anything’ — Even A Credit Card

Plein air requires a pared-down kit; you can only carry so much. On one outing, Byers forgot her balsa wood panels, so her husband “went back to the trailhead and got the panels for me,” she says. “And then I get set up and I went to grab my other painting tools, and I forgot those as well.”

She didn’t have the heart to ask him to make another two-mile trek to get her brushes, so she had to get creative.

Credit Jennifer Wing
Artist Sandy Byers, whose preferred painting tool is a credit card.

“I picked up my credit card and started to paint with it. Artists will paint with anything. We’ll paint with a stick if we have to. If we get out there and there’s nothing to paint with, something’s going to give,” she says.

Today, a credit card is Byers’ preferred tool. She likens the sound the card makes on her canvas to a cat’s tongue.

“Just that little grit to it. I’m much more creative because I can’t, with a credit card, get real tight detail in there. If I have a brush in my hand, I can’t help myself; that’s what I do. But if I have a credit card, I don’t have that choice,” she says.

‘It’s Like Gorilla Painting’

About five miles west, with the Dungeness Spit lighthouse in the distance, artist Susan Ogilvie is in the middle of capturing a saltwater marsh teaming with ducks, eagles, heron and swallows. She sits by the side of the road, working with chalk pastels. 

Ogilvie agrees, plein air painting limits choices and requires simplicity.

“Having less decision making while you’re painting makes it go faster. Usually you get something that’s a bit more spontaneous and less resolved. You have to work a little harder. It’s like gorilla painting,” she says.

On this day, Ogilvie is behind. Even though she’s on a dead-end road, passersby have stopped to chat and admire what’s been created thus far.

Normally Ogilvie practices plein air in very remote spots. A friend usually comes along for safety.

“It’s not people so much, but there’s cougars. You want to be aware nothing’s going to sneaking up on you, whether it be animal or human,” she says.

The desire to see how someone else interprets the world in front of him or her is very strong. Even when Byers sets an easel up on a steep hill, the curious always find a way to reach her.

“I’ll be darned people made their way up that thing, all the way up and around to see the painting. And I felt sorry for the ones who showed up and there was nothing there because I just started,” she says.

Event Details

Byers and Ogilvie have one week to prepare for this year’s Paint the Peninsula event, which kicks off on Sept. 8. All of the contestants had to be approved by a jury to be able to participate. The top prize is $1,500. The winning creation will also be the new label for a wine bottle.

Artists from all over the country will arrive to compete, and organizers say they will do their best make sure out-of-town contestants have free lodging — if they're willing to part with one of their paintings.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.