Painting outdoors—“en plein air,” as the French would say—is deeply rooted in the history of the city. Artists have been drawn to the coast, light and natural beauty since at least the late 1800s. The artists who established Laguna as an arts colony in the early 1900s were all plein-air painters: William Wendt, Frank Cuprien, Anna Hills and Edgar Payne, among others. Open-air painters would form the Laguna Beach Art Association, leading to a gallery that would eventually become Laguna Art Museum.
Keeping Laguna’s history in mind, the 17th annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational opens Oct. 17 and runs through Oct. 25, based out of its new location, Tivoli Too on the Art-A-Fair grounds. The event will draw 35 of the nation’s best contemporary outdoor painters, including John Cosby, Albert Handell, Greg LaRock and Lori Putnam, to Laguna for nine days of competition, painting demonstrations, educational events, art shows and good, old-fashioned fun.
“The invitational is special—only a select number of artists are invited. … You have to be the best of the best.” –Rosemary Swimm
“Just getting out there, there’s just a buzz in the air,” says Laguna resident and participating artist April Raber of plein-air painting. “Tromping through the bushes and you meet all these people out there painting—how could you not really love it?”
While some of the artists, like April, are returnees, 10 are participating for the first time this year. “The invitational is special—only a select number of artists are invited,” says Rosemary Swimm, executive director of Laguna Plein Air Painters Association (LPAPA), which has operated the event since its inception in 1998. “Not anyone can be in it. It’s done through a selection committee. You have to be the best of the best.”
The public is invited to watch the painters in action and attend all of the special events free of charge, with one exception: the Collectors’ Soirée and gala reception. At this ticketed affair, attendees will have the opportunity to view and purchase the best of the art created during the invitational, in advance of the general public.
The Masters at Work
The invitational launches with a Quick Draw Paint Out, in which participating artists compete for a cash prize; they have two hours to create a masterpiece, anywhere from Main Beach to Heisler Park. Later, a meet and greet artists’ reception will be held at the Laguna College of Art & Design (LCAD), followed by a silent auction of the pieces that were created just hours earlier.
From dawn until dusk Oct. 18-21, artists will paint scenic vistas throughout Orange County as onlookers peer over their shoulders. Painters are not limited to Laguna Beach, however; they may venture as far north as Huntington Beach and as far south as San Clemente. And while seascapes are often the first to come to mind when one thinks of local plein-air painting, invitational artists are welcome to find inspiration beyond the coast: They can paint city streets, inland hills and industrial scenes, as long as they’re outdoors.
Watching the painting in action may look peaceful and romantic, but the artists who do this regularly attest that the elements can pose a significant challenge.
“You can have an overcast day,” Newport Beach painter Greg LaRock says. “There’s the wind, the rain. The elements make the painting much, much tougher than when you’re in your studio. Out here, there’s bugs, wind, weather. The sun is moving, light is changing. I had my easel picked up and thrown about 30 feet in the wind once. Everything was smashed. It’s not as easy as it looks.”
And yet, most of the artists will assert they can’t imagine doing anything else.
“When I get outside, and you can feel the wind, hear the birds and smell the ocean, I get really excited,” says Laguna resident and longtime Festival of Arts exhibitor Michael Situ, who won the Padma Group Award last year. “I want to capture the light, the shadow—capture the moment.”
Experienced professionals aren’t the only ones showing off their skills. Local children put brush to canvas during the kids’ paint out and cupcake reception, and later, LCAD students will demonstrate their talents.
In addition to observing the artists, the public is invited to join a discussion with them during Plein Talk on Oct. 19, when LPAPA makes use of its new permanent home, Forest & Ocean Gallery at 480 Ocean Ave. The lively panel will address plein-air painting and collecting.
A number of prizes are awarded during the invitational, some of which involve cash. The top accolade is the LPAPA Best of Show award, which bestows $10,000 upon the lucky recipient. This year’s celebration of plein-air work is also extended an extra day to include an additional public art show and sale; attendees will have the opportunity to pick up work created throughout the week, including the award-winning pieces.
Michael Obermeyer, recipient of the 2014 Fine Art Connoisseur Award, says the invitational is a chance to catch up with old friends, as well as try something different. “For me, it’s looking forward to finding something new to paint, and painting with some of these guys I don’t get to paint with as much,” he explains. “It’s also interesting to see how the other artists paint Laguna, and what they choose to paint. We’re like an extended family.”
—Written by Richard Chang