Arts & Culture

Central Coast on display during 11th annual Plein Air Festival this week

Bruce Everett  with his Plein air painting.  photo jayson mellom  9-14-12
Bruce Everett with his Plein air painting. photo jayson mellom 9-14-12 The Tribune

Golden beaches. Lush forests. Rolling hills.

The beauty of the Central Coast is officially on display at the Plein Air Festival, which kicks off tonight with a welcome party at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

Now in its 11th year, the festival features a full week of activities, including an art exhibition, a poetry and film night, and a talk by Bay Area painter Richard Lindenberg. Saturday’s popular Quick Draw event finds festival artists racing against the clock to create paintings in just a few hours; the results will be available for sale via live auction.

Below, we take a closer look at three of the local painters participating in this year’s festivities.


“Late May in the Carrizo,” 2012, 11-by-17 inches

Bruce Everett typically spends his time painting large-scale, realistic landscapes in his barn-size Templeton studio. So he relishes the chance to create something a little more intimate.

“For someone who’s spent up to three years on a painting in the past, the idea of spending three hours on a painting is wonderful and invigorating,” said Everett, who is participating in the Plein Air Festival for the first time this year.

Still, he added, plein air painting has its own set of challenges.

“You’re racing against the clock,” Everett explained, trying to capture constantly shifting light and weather conditions.

While working on “Late May in the Carrizo” during a camping trip to the Carrizo Plain, the painter found himself struggling to capture the morning sunlight illuminating a creek lined with wild sage.

“I couldn’t keep trying to chase the sun,” Everett said, so he decided to paint from memory instead.

Of course, those aren’t the worst conditions he’s faced.

Once, while working atop Cerro San Luis, Everett encountered a gale so powerful he nearly lost his painting. “I had to paint with one hand and hold the canvas with the other,” he recalled.

Everett has also dealt with pesky gnats in Los Padres National Forest and pushy cows at a Utah ranch. (“The cattle thought I was the rancher coming to feed them,” he explained.)

Still, he said, such distractions are all part of the plein air experience.

“Art is about being in the moment, and you can’t be much more in the moment than plein air,” said Everett, professor emeritus at California State University, Northridge.


“Late Light, San Luis Obispo,” 2012, 24 by 30 inches

According to Los Osos artist Ken Christensen, plein air painters have to be constantly vigilant.

“Occasionally, you’ll see a scene and it’s almost what you’d call ‘readymade,’ ” Christensen said. “All the pieces click together.”

He discovered the neighborhood depicted in “Late Light, San Luis Obispo” one summer afternoon while exploring the Phillips Lane area. The lively street scene depicts two homes — one a cheery yellow frame house, the other a pristine white adobe — set against a swirling sky. Bishop Peak stands in the background.

Christensen, who has been involved in the Plein Air Festival since its inception, said he’s always enjoyed working outdoors.

“For me, there’s a double advantage,” he said, starting with the “sheer joy” of spending a day in the sun. “When you spend three hours observing something, nature reveals its secrets to you. You learn about composition, about colors, about light.”

“On the technical side,” he added,” I feel more confident and more open to experimentation than when I’m in a studio.”

Christensen said he finds plenty of inspiration on the Central Coast, from beautiful rock formations in Shell Beach to colorful kayaks on the shores of Cuesta Cove in Los Osos.

“I love the old neighborhoods in San Luis Obispo — Buchon Street, Murray Street. I know I can always find something to paint there,” he said.

The founder of the group The New Fauves, which embraces the Fauvist movement of the early 1900s, Christensen is always on the lookout for interesting subjects.

“Being a landscape painter, you can get bored painting the same scenes over and over,” he said. “You’ve got to keep it fresh.”


“Silver Light,” 2012, 12 by 18 inches

Ask Santa Maria artist Sheryl Knight about her favorite subject to paint, and she has a one-word answer: “Trees.”

She relishes setting up her easel early in the morning in front of a rolling hill covered with live oaks, or an orchard ablaze with fall foliage.

“Some people get just as thrilled over painting a flower,” Knight said, as she does when she’s surrounded by aspen, cottonwood and eucalyptus groves. Besides, she added, trees evolve with the seasons.

“Silver Light,” which Knight described as a “nocturne,” depicts one of her favorite spots in Monterey, a stunning stand of cypress trees. (In November, the painting will be featured in American Women Artists’ prestigious annual show in Tubac, Ariz.)

“We live in a gorgeous part of the country and there’s endless material to paint,” said Knight, whose range as a plein air painter typically stretches as far north as Paso Robles and as far south as Carpinteria. She also finds plenty of inspiration in Cambria, Los Osos and the Edna Valley.

“I do a lot of vineyards,” said Knight, adding that regimented rows of vines are particularly popular with tourists. “They’re fun, but they can get monotonous.”

Although the festival veteran occasionally uses snapshots and sketches to complete paintings in the studio, she agreed that plein air is “really the best way to paint.”

“When you paint fast, you get a fresher look,” she said. “Everything is much more beautiful and magnificent than when you’re painting from a photograph.”