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The Joy Of Painting En Plein Air

The clouds hang low over the water along a quiet stretch of gravelly beach in the Strait of Juan De Fuca near Sequim.  A sail boat 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.

“It’s sort of 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. 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 2nd annual Paint The Peninsula event based out of Port Angeles. People will fan out from Sequim to the Ho River Rain Forest to practice the art of plein air.  

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’s a convert, “Honestly, the Paint The Peninsula Event has pretty much changed my artistic life.”

Painting en plein air, is the French term that simply means paining outside. It is something artists have been doing for hundreds of years. 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 wrote about it to his good friend Emile Zola saying, “But you know, all the pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as the things done outside.”

Plein air requires a pared down kit. You can only carry so much. On one outing Sandy Byers forgot her balsa wood panels.  She said her husband , “went back to the trail-head and got the panels for me 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. Byers said her forgetfulness forced her to get creative, “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.”

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.”

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’s sits by the side of the road working with chalk pastels. Ogilvie agrees with fellow artist Sandy Buyers that plein air painting limits your 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.”

Ogilvie is behind today. Even though she’s on a dead end road passers by 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,” said Ogilvie.

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.”

Sandy Byers and Susan Ogilvie have one week to prepare for this year’s Paint The Peninsula event, which kicks off on September 8th. All of the contestants had to be approved by a jury to be able to participate.  The top prize is 15 hundred dollars. The winning creation will also be the new label for a wine bottle.

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