The Plein Air Scene

by Sarah Beserra

Scott Burdick, Sarah in Catalina, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches


Plein Talk

By Peter Brown


When I first had the opportunity to go out painting with Lou Siegriest and Terry St. John, I jumped at the chance. It was December of 1972, and I was asked to drive. We left from Lou's house in North Oakland's Temescal District and drove up to Skyline Boulevard and into the Regional Park. I had a '49 Dodge pickup, and we crowded into the cab. The painting gear was tossed into the back. Lou had to adjust his knees every time I shifted. The day was not all that productive as we were chased away from our spot by a group of mountain bikers who conspired to disturb our peace and quiet. But I remember thinking as we drove back into town just how strange it was that I had never done this before. I'd been to art school, I had painted since I was a kid, and yet no one had ever suggested that I take a box of paints out-of-doors and into the very subject matter. After all, with a legacy of Abstract Expressionism, I had been taught that "Art" was an inner journey, a psychological enterprise, involving one's inner demons rather than the world at hand.

That day was eye-opening. I had never really confronted a tree before. I had certainly painted a tree, drawing on memory or photographs. Now I was faced with a single tree, and I knew that whatever happened, no tree would ever be the same in my eye.

These excursions continued. Lou's son, Lundy, soon joined our little group. We found our solitude and what I remember most is a shedding of the non-essential. Early on, I was packing a camp stool, an ice chest and a footlocker full of the bare necessities. Each week, however, 1 sloughed off more and more until my gear consisted of a little red tool box: and something to paint on. What a most remarkable lesson. My preconceptions about art had, in effect, been turned inside out.

Years have passed. Lou and Lundy are gone and I have a studio space. Yet the heart of that studio is a little red paint box containing 30 tubes of paint, a few brushes, and a pint of pure gum turpentine - all that one really needs to make art.

Someday I am going to go back up on Skyline Boulevard. I will find that damn tree and put a plaque on it. How I struggled that day. Lou had a piece of advice. "Pete," he said, "Never paint a tree that is closer than a mile away. You don't want to make a f---- tree portrait, you want to make a f---- painting."

Over the years, this advice has been dear to me. It can be applied to all kinds of painting. It can be applied to life itself. Lou was telling me to remember exactly what I was trying to do, and to just get to the heart of it. There lies the secret - whether it is a painting, a relationship, or a well-mowed lawn. The prescription is apt. Lou had a great deal of influence on me. I am not sure if his advice made my art any better, but I know he made my life better.

Peter Brown is a full-time art teacher in Oakland

© Sarah Beserra, 2001

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Sarah Beserra is Editor and Publisher of The Plein Air Scene - a monthly newsletter on plein air painting in California. You may contact Sarah at or (707) 645-7361

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