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Art is in the Plein Air
— Napa, Sonoma, & Marin


What makes artists abandon the temperature-controlled environment of their studios, pack up their easels, paints or pastels, dress in layers of clothing and head for the outdoors, with its changing temperatures, bugs, wind and sometimes unexpected precipitation? What is it that plein air painters love about this ruggedness? Painting en plein air, or painting outdoors, combines art and the adventure of hiking to new places and “setting up” on ranches, sidewalks, or by crashing waves. For better or worse, these painters have chosen to be physically wed to the scene they are capturing.


by Teri Sloat

What makes artists abandon the temperature-controlled environment of their studios, pack up their easels, paints or pastels, dress in layers of clothing and head for the outdoors, with its changing temperatures, bugs, wind and sometimes unexpected precipitation? What is it that plein air painters love about this ruggedness? Painting en plein air, or painting outdoors, combines art and the adventure of hiking to new places and “setting up” on ranches, sidewalks, or by crashing waves. For better or worse, these painters have chosen to be physically wed to the scene they are capturing.

And while we have a label for these outdoor painters now, a niche for them to fall in, painting outdoors before cameras became available was a necessity. Early California painters traveled on horseback or hiked to discover and paint locations inaccessible by road. Their paintings and sketches documented California and its coast in paint, ink and pencil for those who could not physically come to the area. Their goal then and now remains the same: to share with others their love and physical closeness to the outdoors, with all its beauty and changing light. And plein air painters, because of their own need for fresh air and unspoiled beauty, have always been some of our most active conservationists and land preservationists.

Plein air painters need a physical memory as well as a photographic memory of a scene. They are painting adventurers full of adrenaline. They crave being in the environment they are painting, to be first- hand observers of the color changes that come with different seasons and times of day, with the glittering particles in the air over farm fields or the clarity of the desert sky. They need to hear what they paint, the sound of the creek or the ocean, the hum of tractors or traffic going by (hopefully in the distance) and the sound of blackbirds in the reeds. Like good writers, they want to be part of the scene they are painting and create a story to share. And whether painters finish their paintings outdoors or use them in the studio as a study for a larger painting, they know light and energy flow into the paintings. It comes from being out in nature, and it’s something that’s hard to capture from a photographic study.

While there are picturesque regions to paint anywhere you step outdoors in California, few places offer a year-round opportunity to get out and paint like Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties. Paintings from this area of the North Bay offer a signature look that distinguishes them from southwest, northwest and even southern California. These are paintings of rolling hills, often golden, studded with dark oaks and tall eucalyptus, intimate trails among tall redwoods, a coastline of crashing surf and barren cliffs with low growth, lagunas and still-water sanctuaries full of migrating birds. And there is a different light that infuses our Napa-Sonoma-Marin area, a diffused light that plays on coastal air flowing inland to color our sky in the late afternoon and evening.

As soon as you cross the Golden Gate Bridge and head north, wherever you exit the freeway, you enter an area of back roads and small towns, where painters can experience a regular high by setting up their easels beside a quiet road, on a trail in the wetlands or, with permission, on a farm or ranch. They will be using their most spontaneous medium, selecting their scenes from the never-ending choices the land offers and composing the story they want to take home with them.

It will be their own story, told with subconscious and deliberate choices of color and shapes. It will be edited on the spot to match what they see and how they feel in the place they are standing. Each artist has his or her own color palette, signature brush strokes and way of showing distance and making you focus on that moment the painter fell in love with the view.


Visitors and residents of Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties are enjoying a new wave of plein air painting and an appreciation of that perfect snapshot on canvas or board that captures our scenes, from gardens to parks to beaches. There is a constant growth of open space in our area, giving the public access to our beautiful lands. There are state and regional parks, as well as ranch and farm land. Many ranches and farms have now been turned over to trusts so that the public can enjoy them. Sonoma Land Trust, Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Land Trust of Napa County, along with our abundance of state and regional parks, make this area not only an amazing tourist destination for nature lovers, but also a plein air painter’s mecca. From galleries to events and festivals to open studios and classes, the renewed interest in and enthusiasm for plein air painting has happy ramifications for collectors and enthusiasts.


Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties boast some of the finest galleries north of San Francisco, with many focusing on the work of accomplished local artists. These galleries, which feature a trove of paintings done on location, are becoming favorite destinations of collectors who are looking for a California landscape to remind them of their time here. Sonoma County boasts Sebastopol Center for the Arts, Sebastopol Gallery, Graton Gallery, Gallery One, Upstairs Gallery, Stafford Gallery and many others.

But for an in-depth look at California plein air painting, be sure to visit Christopher Queen Galleries in Duncan’s Mills. You’ll find contemporary and early California paintings, as well as a wealth of information about the history of plein air throughout the state.


Both nonprofit preserves and foundations partner with artists for shows and fundraisers on behalf of land preservation. One of collectors’ favorites is Ranches & Rolling Hills, a weekend show in late spring in Nicasio that benefits the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). If you plan to attend Ranches & Rolling Hills, don’t miss the renowned luncheon of organically grown, locally prepared gourmet food that MALT puts on. Tickets go fast! At the show, you can enjoy and buy studio and plein air paintings by Tim Horn, Richard Lindenberg, Carol Peek, Christine Coy, Dana Hooper and many others, all residents of Marin County.

While this event is a fundraiser, the show also reminds us that our agricultural land is also a beautiful, fragile ecosystem and a place to rest our eyes and regroup. At an interview during Ranches & Rolling Hills, one rancher was asked if allowing artists to paint on his land had changed the way he viewed his land. He said, “Not really,” then stopped. After a vineyards to paint and display our work to happy wine tasters. moment of thought, he added that it was the first time he ever looked at his ranch as a place whose beauty and open space brought pleasure to someone else.

Plein air painters can be found in festivals throughout Napa, Sonoma and Marin Counties. Mark your calendars for September 10-14, the Sonoma Plein Air Festival, an invitational gathering of plein air artists from the North Bay and across the nation. For five days they paint in the Sonoma, Napa and Marin area. The festival ends in picturesque Sonoma, with a public showing and sale of the paintings, along with wine and food.

Did I mention wine and food? Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties are the heart of the wine country, despite what they may say on the central coast. Each winery has changing, year-round art exhibits. Many plein air painters, including me, love to set up in their


You will find an abundance of plein air art, and often larger studio pieces that have emerged from studies done outdoors, as well as other mediums, at the following open studios. Stroll in, view the art, chat with the artists.

  • Art at the Source: First two weekends in June (artatthesource.org)
  • Open Studios Napa Valley: Last two weekends in September (artnv.org)
  • Sonoma County Art Trails: 2nd and 3rd weekends in October (sonomacountyarttrails.org)


Painters who paint outdoors are often particularly knowledgeable about the habitat and conservation within our many protected nature preserves. Accomplished painters from the area, as well as those from other parts of the country, come here to paint and to offer workshops and classes.

For example, Sonoma County’s Marsha Connell, teaches landscape painting and drawing for the Santa Rosa Junior College art department and through the Pepperwood Foundation. She is part of the teaching team for Bio/Earths 85, a master naturalist program class developed as a model for the state by Santa Rosa Junior College instructors. I lead the introductory field day, teaching students sketching skills as a valuable observation tool in creating field journals. Marsha’s paintings are expressionistic and free, but they are based on keen observation and study.

Impressionistic Petaluma painter, Camille Przedwodek, is known nationally and internationally for her colorist way of painting outdoor light. When she is not painting in plein air festivals and garnering awards, she is teaching impressionism, which has come to mean, “the effect of light on color.” Her students learn how light creates color and how color notes convey light.

As an unsuspecting student, I met with Camille’s class at a beautiful marsh in Petaluma, expecting to paint grass and water and hills. Instead, I found that we would be painting the effect of that amazing outdoor light on simple vessels and blocks. As Camille said, it was like scales for the piano: before painting the landscape, we learned how color changed with atmosphere, time of day, angle of light and how the first color you put down dictates the rest. I still hate scales and discipline, but as I write this, I have this nagging feeling I need to get back to practicing my own “scales.”

Camille says, “Shifting light is my passion, whether it entices you along a dappled California roadway, transforms a modest cottage in southern France into a castle, or turns an indoor garden into a riot of sensuality.” She muses that perhaps the paintings are a way she can “relive” a brighter childhood than she had growing up in a Detroit working-class neighborhood.

Camille’s paintings often capture not only the countryside, but also the beauty of the light as it hits a neighborhood home, making even the most mundane subject strikingly beautiful. She uses color to express natural light. Windows and doorways in her paintings both hold back and let in light, and shadows become tangible even though they are insubstantial.

Another Petaluma painter and longtime painting partner of mine, Phyllis Calvin Thomas, stands at her easel, with palette knife ready, studying the land in front of her. Phyllis says, “I love the adrenaline rush of the plein air painting experience. Time is short, as light and shadow change quickly. I plan my composition even as I set up my easel and paints. Surrounded by nature, all my senses are fully engaged. Wind, sun, clouds, heat, cold, rain, birdsong, insects, smells — it is not always comfortable, but it is certainly exhilarating!” She adds, “I rely strongly on intuition and simplification because I don’t have time to overthink the details. Instead, my goal is to capture the essence and beauty of the lands before me.”

One of the most expressionistic plein air and studio landscape painters in Sonoma County, and whose work you will find at Sebastopol Gallery, is Paula Matzinger. For Paula, plein air was a predictable path on her painting journey, as she has always felt most at home outside, whether hiking, backpacking, sitting by a stream, or standing on a beach. Also known for her studio paintings, Paula says, “I especially cherish the hours spent standing on a roadside with my easel and paints, expressing what I see, feel, hear, taste and smell in the moment. It gives me the opportunity to breath in my environment and exhale through my paints.”

The two paintings below are of Gualala River Mouth. Paula painted them at two different times, from slightly different angles. In one the tide is high; in the other it is low. I remember the moment when I first walked onto this bluff and took in the view. My jaw dropped. I remember the slight ocean breeze, the far-off sound of waves. I remember the shadows shifting and the waters deepening in color. I remember the satisfaction I felt late in the day when I knew I was done. And, having been completely absorbed in recreating this natural scene, only then did I notice how stiff my legs and back were.


All honest plein air painters will tell you about their awkward first attempts at painting outdoors. But even awkward first dates can lead to a love affair with plein air painting.

I had been sitting at a desk writing and illustrating children’s books for twenty years when I started painting outdoors. I had taken up playing soccer and was addicted to the adrenaline of the sport. When I had to quit, I still needed something to give me fresh air and the wonderful physical exhaustion at the end of the day. During Sonoma County’s annual Art Trails event, I signed up with Joan Hoffmann for plein air painting classes.

I headed outdoors, fully expecting plein air painting to be like illustrating, but I found out that my first plein air “dances,” with the wind at my back and the easel as my partner, were humorously clumsy. As I set my easel up, I lost a wing nut, and its washer in the grass. Then, with the parts recovered and my easel finally set up, I looked out at a vast oak-studded panorama, overwhelmed with choices of what to paint. My first paintings were like my first soccer games: awkward. But after going out once or twice a week, learning how to mix paints and edit the scene into a composition, I became fascinated by a new awareness of the ever-changing look of our landscapes. I changed my plein air medium to soft pastel, and a new addiction was born.

Now my eyes are searching wherever I drive for the next painting. Be patient with the car on the rural road in front of you: the driver may be trying to figure out if the sky is cobalt or cyan, if there is red or pink in the green grass, if the mountain in the distance is far enough away to be lavender. And the driver may be looking for those rare places with both a vista and enough room to pull off and paint.


What does it take to get started painting outdoors? We all come with our own baggage, but a plein air painter has learned to consolidate and pack a small studio into one or two portable carriers. Artists haul their easels, paints or pastels, palettes, sketchbooks, paper towels, brushes, water, and often umbrellas and sunscreen, in a well-thought-out packing system that requires as few trips as possible between the car, campsite or hotel and the chosen painting spot. Soltec easels are favorites for plein air painters: they are lightweight, but weights can hold them down on windy days. But many artists, like me, prefer the sturdier wooden easels. They’re heavier to carry, but less likely to blow away in a gale. Not all plein air painters paint with oils. Many are watercolorists, but some, including Sonoma County’s Clark Mitchell and me, love pastels. A master pastelist as well as oil painter, Clark chooses to save his oils for the studio.

Clark is known not only for his plein air and studio landscapes, but also for his ability to teach and evaluate painters along their journey. Clark says, “I want to give my students the tools to confidently approach painting [and to be] able to accurately discern lights and darks, and warm and cool color relationships.

There's no better way to paint the landscape than standing in the midst of all the light and color, with chaotic, unpredictable life going on around the painter. I share Clark’s feelings about pastels when e says, “For me, pastels are so portable, so vibrant and so easy to handle outdoors. I leave my oils for the studio.”


Plein air painters may appear calm and collected on the outside, but on the inside, we are full of adrenaline from the passion and pressure to capture a view that speaks to us. We must capture it within a short period of time, and we feel the pressure of catching the light before it changes. We all share the challenge of letting ourselves paint from somewhere deep inside, while still hanging onto our initial composition and plan. Plein air painters can tell you battle stories about bugs that bite and bugs that land on their canvases and stick to the wet paint; about the wind that comes up and blows their easels away, sometimes planting their paintings face down in the grass or sand; about paint palettes flipping and decorating their jackets; about cattle taking over their painting spots, nuzzling their heads against the easels; and about lugging their easels on long hikes to reach a view point that inspires them. It might not be a stretch to say that when artists tell you they did a painting en plein air, they say it with pride in their stamina and survival. When you purchase a painting from a plein air painter, you are adding a piece of that energy to your collection and you are acquiring a story.

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