Even when they’re not painting, plein air artists are always scouting the landscapes.
They keep their eyes out for places with interesting features, good light and lots of color. And if a place seems to measure up, they’ll return with a box of paints and an empty canvas.
As the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art prepares for its annual Plein Air Festival — a weeklong fundraiser featuring talks, a quick draw, movies, poetry and 50 landscape painters from around the country—we asked three of the local participating artists to bring in a piece of art and discuss it with us.
LARRY KAPPEN LOS OSOS
It wasn’t until he moved from Los Angeles that Larry Kappen really began to see the light. Natural light, that is.
Once on the Central Coast — first in Santa Barbara and now in Los Osos— Kappen was drawn to the artistic possibilities of the sun, which he began to appreciate while hiking hills, canyons and beaches. Soon the one-time graphic artist and longtime art teacher at Santa Maria High School was recreating the light he saw in works influenced by the Impressionists.
His painting “San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, Spring Plant Sale” was one of several he created at a SLO Botanical Garden fundraiser.
Q: When you see a foggy day, are you bummed out?
A: Sometimes. Sometimes it’ll surprise you, though. I tend to work better in brighter light, but when you’re thrown a hook, sometimes that’s kind of exciting. Because it kind of makes you think differently. And you see something you’ve seen before in a different way.
Q: Where did you start on this painting?
A: I wanted to focus on the idea of moving around the garden. So I wanted to focus on the paths. All of my paintings in that series are based on the pathways. And in this one, that takes the center. It becomes a movement. I wanted to pull you in to the garden and make you feel like you were walking through it. I don’t focus on the individual plants as much as the idea of the path.
Q: How did you try to do that with the path?
A: With the light. As you look at it, the light is kind of a creamy color that kind of moves throughout the whole thing.
Q: So you see the person picturing themselves on the path?
A: Yeah, it could be a metaphor for life. It’s hokey, but you have choices. I tell my kids that all the time. You can go right or left. So the pathways became part of the painting’s allure because they want you to go a certain way.
Q: I notice in your stuff, you do a lot of trees. Are you the Painter of Bark?
A: I don’t know what it is about trees. I see things through them. I like their shapes. I enjoy the energy.
Q: That tree on the right there -how do you know, “I’ve got just the amount of blue in there I need?”
A: You feel the sharing of the energy, and the harmony of the whole thing. It’s just a gut feeling. I wish there was an easy answer.
JOHN BARNARD ATASCADERO
As a child, John Barnard would listen to the radio and draw pictures of what he thought Jack Benny and other radio personalities looked like.
Years later, after a stint in World War II, he studied painting at the University of Georgia. Then he went to Mexico to paint but got sidetracked, accepting a career in the electrical business, where he learned about meters and transformers.
After rising through the ranks in that career — and living in Latin America for 25 years — Barnard decided to retire early in 1973 so he could dedicate more time to painting, which he has been doing ever since.
His acrylic, of an abandoned church he’d sketched decades ago, was completed earlier this year.
Q: That’s in Mexico?
A: I’ve got hundreds of old sketches, and sometimes I’ll go back and look through them and say, “Hey — that would make a great painting.”
Q: What memories does this bring about?
A: I used to explore out in the desert with friends or go to old mines or old abandoned villages. And the old Catholic churches — a lot of them in Mexico are abandoned — they’re great subject matter. And some of them are still used, even with the roofs falling in.
Q: Is there something that appeals to you about the abandoned church?
A: There’s a mystery to it. It’s sort of interesting to paint something and wonder what it was really like and what happened over the years. You can make a story about it in your own mind.
Q: The sky is pretty dark here. Do you do that on purpose?
A: I painted the sky dark to bring out the building -to make the building more noticeable. If I had painted a lighter sky, you wouldn’t have the dramatic effect that you get this way.
Q: That brick wall has a ton of color. How do you know when to stop? Do you obsess about, you know, “I need a little more blue here.”
A: I’ve ruined a lot of paintings that way. Particularly watercolors. Often we’ll do a watercolor, and it looks real nice, but then you add a little bit here and a little bit there, and the next thing you know we’ve got mud.
Q: It’s got to be hard to know when to quit.
A: I did a fast painting on location recently, and someone said, “Gee, you paint fast.” So I went home and worked on an old painting that I started in 1947. I didn’t like it much, so I repainted it. So I put “1947-2011.” It took me a long time.
DOTTY HAWTHORNE SAN LUIS OBISPO
One of five girls, Dotty Hawthorne spent a lot of time drawing with her siblings as a child. But when she was 12, she decided to get serious, begging her mother for art lessons.
The lessons stuck, and she wound up studying art at Wheaton College in Illinois. After her husband finished his residency at the Mayo Clinic, the couple moved their family in 1979 to the Central Coast, where Hawthorne quickly became a part of the art scene.
Hawthorne, who co-owns the Gallery at the Network in San Luis Obispo, brought in her painting, “Golden Sycamores,” which she created with pastels while with a friend near Highway 166 last December.
Q: That looks like a good climbing tree. Did that take you back to childhood?
A: No. It was the colors that attracted me, especially against that hillside, with the deep green. And it was pretty late in the day. So being backlit like that, the colors just really glowed, which is what I tried to capture.
Q: Bob Ross on PBS always made it look so easy to paint trees. Was he putting us on?
A: Trees have so much character. I’ve always loved painting trees because they’re so expressive. Whether they’re hard or not, I don’t know. I try to capture the individual quality of each tree rather than the generic tree. Pastels are nice for doing trees because it’s kind of a nice combination of drawing and painting.
Q: So you decided to not include the sky. How come?
A: I think it makes you zero in on the tree more. And with the sky, you get a light banner on top, which maybe competes a little bit with the light in the tree. And this makes it a more intimate painting.
Q: Was it more difficult to do this in pastel than it would be with oils?
A: I’ve been doing some oil painting lately. One thing I love about pastels is that you’ve got hundreds of colors right there. And to be mixing paint, it’s a challenge. And this is faster because you can just grab the color and put it on.
Q: So many plein air painters paint recognizable scenes. When you do something like this, people obviously aren’t going to recognize where it is. Is that something you do every now and then?
A: Yeah. The great thing about being a plein air painter is that you go to all these places that you wouldn’t normally just drive by. Occasionally, it’s fun to do one of the recognizable places, but highlighting a tree in all its glory is just as much fun as painting Morro Rock.