LOOK OUT! The plein-air painters have invaded Utah! Already they've been spotted on the Avenues and in Ogden Valley. And right now, they might even be in your neighborhood _ painting up a storm.
Plein air is French for "open air." It relates to paintings done outside the studio; the term used by artists is "on location."
This kind of painting dates back to a branch of impressionism where artists left their studios and started painting in the open air. Monet, Pissarro Renoir, Van Gogh and others experimented with this kind of painting. They soon mastered it, and today all of us bask in the brilliance of the light they captured on their canvases as a result of painting in the open air.
Painter Paul Signac (1863-1935) expressed his feelings about this impressionist style by saying, "The entire surface of the (impressionist) painting glows with sunlight; the air circulates; light embraces, caresses and irradiates forms; it penetrates everywhere, even into the shadows, which it illuminates."
Over the past few years, the open-air painting movement has spread across the country. And about four months ago here in Utah, 16 Utah painters banded together to form an organization called the Plein-Air Painters of Utah.
Spearheaded by local painter Ken Baxter, the group has informally been around for about 10 years now. Originally it consisted of some 15 students Baxter and his brother Dan were teaching.
About three years ago, Dan Baxter was interested in organizing a more formal group. He held a meeting in which initial plans were set. However, Dan passed away a year later, and the plans were placed on the back burner.
One thing that redirected Ken Baxter's attention to forming this group was his participation last June in the Plein-Air Festival in California. He, as well as A.D. Shaw and Graydon Foulger, were among 20 regional painters invited to paint out of doors for three weeks. The experience culminated with an exhibit and auction in the San Jose Art Museum.
When Baxter returned to Utah, he got together the artists who had met three years earlier and resumed discussion about setting up an organization.
"We talked about things we could do that would make the group exciting," Baxter said. "Basically our goals were to have fun as well as to become motivated to produce art."
During that meeting, the organization was finalized. And it was decided that the group would be called the Plein-Air Painters of Utah.
Baxter pointed out one of the benefits of working together. "There is incredible power as a group. We could produce a show in a week if we had to, with each of the 16 members submitting three works."
Baxter said that all of these artists simply love painting out of doors. They have learned that it is highly stimulating and the best way of capturing that something that is so very illusive _ the feeling of the place.
"Painters who work from slides slow way down," he said. "They become overly concerned about detail; they miss the big, overall picture; they pass over the subtle values and colors."
He said photographs are great references, but it's definitely not exciting when working from that kind of format.
Although he doesn't finish a painting on location, Baxter tries to complete about 90 percent of it. When in his studio, he makes corrections and refines his work.
David Merrill of Farmington was invited to join the group several months ago, and he thinks it's the "greatest experience an artist can have."
"I am stimulated by seeing nature firsthand," he said. "I am able to capture a freshness that I don't get in my studio."
A bonus is "just being out and enjoying the beauties of nature."
He says that on the first day, he likes to spend two or three hours on location. Then he goes back another day for another fresh look and start.
"Hopefully when I bring the painting back to my studio, I won't do much to it. It's easy to take away from the freshness and spontaneity I was able to capture on location."
Since Merrill has been a member of the plein-air group, he has participated in several painting "holidays." In the fall, he and the other artists traveled to Ogden Valley and painted in Eden, Liberty and Huntsville. And not too long ago, they bundled up and painted on the Avenues.
Merrill said the exciting thing about membership in the group is the motivation and stimulation they get from working with each other and critiquing each other's paintings at the end of the day. These experiences give the artists a greater challenge.
In the spring they plan to go into southern Utah and to the Bear Lake area, he said. "We have a lot of painting holidays scheduled in various areas of Utah that have the kind of landscapes we like to paint."
Sharon Marsh of Salt Lake City has been a member of the outdoor painting group for four years now. And she loves painting with the others.
"It's fun to see how different people interpret the same thing," she said. "I think it's more motivating working as a group than by yourself."
She added that painting on location brings to an artist an entirely different feeling. Although one can often capture many of the colors in a photograph, some of the subtle colors are lost.
When on location, Marsh says, she has more freedom; she feels more comfortable adding and deleting objects. She can put things into the paintings that might be around her, but not necessarily in the immediate scene that a camera would capture.
The results of the group's painting excursions have been exciting. Just last month the members held group shows in Salt Lake City and Farmington.
Some of you have undoubtedly bumped into this dedicated group of painters as they've moved from place to place and set up their easels. Many more of you will chance upon them in the future. And my advice to you is to stop, to look and to listen. They'll perform magic before your very eyes.