The Plein Air Scene

by Sarah Beserra


Preserving California's Gold


The following is a Special Report on an important and growing phenomenon in the art world, the creation of partnerships between plein air painters and environmental preservationists.

A new group of artist/activist has emerged in the last decade of this Century, challenging the age-old image of the lone artist locked in her solitary studio, alienated from society. They are the plein-air environmentalists, and they are changing the way people view and collect paintings. But more importantly, they are raising awareness of the State's diminishing open spaces and thus, ensuring that landscape painting survives well into the new millennium.

It was the pristine and rugged beauty of California that inspired painters in the early part of this century to create the works that now comprise the school of Early California Impressionism. Unlike their counterparts on the East Coast, the California painters celebrated the pristine landscape untouched by man and machine. These were the wide-open spaces, a seemingly limitless vista of landscapes which begged to be painted. Painters such as William Wendt, Franz A. Bischoff, Alson Skinner Clark and John Marshall Gamble recorded on canvas California's natural gifts in almost a spiritual way.

As the century winds down, California is a vastly different place. Today's plein-air painters struggle to find landscapes that have not been degraded by development. Painters are likely to pack red vests along with their French easels to ensure that hunters don't mistake them for game, as the boundaries between rural and urban spaces blur.

The fact that open spaces are becoming rare is undisputed. A visit to the home of Early California Impressionism - the Irvine Museum in Orange County - provides a dramatic example of what this state used to look like and what it looks like today. This outstanding collection of Early California Impressionist paintings includes the finest painters of the first few decades of this Century. One can view paintings of California poppies by John Gamble and Granville Redmond, the structured, green hills of William Wendt and coastal scenes of Guy Rose, Edgar Payne and Frank Cuprien. The Irvine Museum also owns an extensive collection of early painting of the California missions before they were surrounded by development.

The Museum stands in the heart of what was once the fabulous Irvine Ranch, a Spanish land grant, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the mountains, as far as the eye can see. But look a few inches past the paintings on the walls and out through the windows of the Museum and see the reality of late 20th Century California - condominiums, hotels and several freeways traversing the landscape, a light haze settling over Saddleback Mountain. The contrast is startling.

About ten years ago, the first group of plein-air painters organized to use their talents to protect the quickly vanishing open spaces. This diverse population of painters is the artistic continuum of the Early California Impressionists. However, politically, they have more in common with late 19th century painters such as Thomas Hill, John Moran and later William Keith, whose paintings made the world aware of California's natural glories and jump-started the movement which resulted in our National Park system. (left: William Keith, Mountain Cascade Near Cisco, California, watercolor,16 x 23 1/2 inches, Courtesy St. Mary's College)

In 1986, the Oak Group was born out of conversations between veteran landscape painter and muralist Ray Strong of Santa Barbara and landscape painter Arturo Tello. In the more than 12 years since its founding , these 30 Santa Barbara area painters have become eloquent and dedicated political activists in defense of endangered lands. They have become the role models for other painting groups who want to protect open spaces in other regions of the State.

Projects that have been successfully undertaken by the Oak Group include the Santa Cruz Island Project, formation of the JOSHUA Artists in support of the Desert Protection Act, the Adopt-A-Wilderness Project in partnership with the Sierra Club and the California Wilderness Coalition. Partnerships include the Coastal Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Parks Service. (right: Arturo Tello, Windrows Late, oil on canvas, 30 x 48 inches)

The formula they use is simple yet effective: affiliate with a nonprofit such as the Coastal Conservancy which has the people power and fund-raising ability to put on the show, paint the endangered lands in the months and weeks before the event, invite art lovers who have a concern for the environment and donate 50% of the proceeds back to the nonprofit for environmental preservation. These shows have become so hot that patrons have been known to steal the red dots which indicate "SOLD", tagging paintings as soon as the doors open, to reserve them.

The Oak Group has reached beyond California in its quest to protect, the land. As supporters of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, they see the anti-nuclear movement as very much a part of the environmental movement. Recently painter Larry Iwerks presented one of his paintings to General George Lee Butler, former Commander in Chief of the U. S. Strategic Command, who had been awarded the Distinguished Peace Leadership Award by the Foundation.

The Marin Agricultural Land Trust has taken its cue from the Oak Group and now produces an annual two-day event that packs art lovers and plein air painters into the historic Druid's Hall in the tiny Marin County hamlet of Nicasio. MALT is an unusual coalition of ranchers and environmentalists who joined forces to save open farmland by acquiring conservation easements on these lands. To date, more than 26,000 acres have been preserved forever. MALT teams up with Bay Area painters and Oak Group members for a weekend of fund-raising and painting sales. Artists donate 50% of their proceeds to the environmental nonprofit for support of their programs. This year they sold over 90% of the paintings at the summer show to raise funds for what has become a national model for agricultural land preservation.

The BayWood Artists are a small group of professional artists who share a common bond - a passion for painting matched by an equal passion for helping preserve remaining open spaces for future generations. Their goal is to raise funds for and public awareness of organizations engaged in preserving those lands. BayWood Artists also donate 50% of the proceeds from these exhibits back to specific non profits for environmental preservation. Proceeds from previous exhibits have helped support the preservation of Hawthorne Canyon, Marin Open Space District, and Bolinas Lagoon, one of the nation's most important coastal waterfowl preserves and now an International Heritage Site. Their last major exhibit was held at the Presidio in San Francisco, for the Golden Gate National Parks Association for the restoration of the Oakwood Valley. (left: Ray Strong, Title Unknown, Courtesy Santa Maria Museum Art Center)

The Carquinez Regional Environmental Education Center, CREEC, sponsors the annual Scene on the Strait, a celebration of plein-air painting, now in its fourth year. CREEC is a nonprofit organization born out of a battle that pitted residents of the Carquinez Strait against out-of-state power plant developers. CREEC's mission is to restore the native habitat along the Carquinez Strait - one of two Pacific fly ways in North America - which had been denigrated due to industrial development and the proliferation of non-native plants. CREEC raises funds from local industry to pay for staging Scene on the Strait and splits the profits from painting sales with the artists.

This two-day event attracts art lovers who observe artists painting on location at the Martinez Regional Shoreline and buy paintings of Bay Area scenes that were painted in the weeks and months before the show. Like the MALT event, participation is by invitation only. Participating painters include members of the Outsiders, Bay Wood Artists and the LaMorinda Arts Alliance.There are other examples of these mutually beneficial partnerships. The Informalists, a group of plein -air painters from the Monterey Peninsula, the Outsiders and Artists for Action are examples of painting clubs who have used their artistic talents to benefit environmental causes.

Galleries, too, are getting into the act. A seminal figure in the plein-air environmental movement is Ellen Easton, owner of Easton Galleries in Montecito. She realized the significance of these artistic partnerships early on and spearheaded a 5-year project which resulted in a body of paintings of the remaining land-grant ranchos on the central Coast. In Ranchos, Santa Barbara Land Grant Ranchos, she tells the story, in words and paintings, of Santa Barbara County's 40 remaining ranchos. Eastin,who grew up around these lands, acted as guide, camped with and motivated the participating artists during the hundreds of hours of on-site painting that it took to complete the book and accompanying exhibitions. Her gallery in Montecito is a second home for Oak Group members and other landscape painters. [see Ranchos: The Oak Group Paints the Santa Barbara Countryside (6/4/98)]

Other galleries, as well, are designating a percentage of their profits to environmental organizations. I.Wolk Gallery in St. Helena, the California Heritage Gallery in San Francisco, Arts Benicia and the Epperson Gallery in Crockett all have embraced the environmental preservation movement at one time or another.

Painting for the environment is on the rise, and there is no indication that it will diminish anytime soon. Dennis Powers, former Director of the Santa Barbara Art Museum and now Director of the Oakland Museum sums up the impact of these activist painters. In The Oak Group, published by Easton Press, he says, "They have become conservationists of a dangerous and radical kind. They depict in a heartfelt way what we may be in danger of losing - a far cry from weighty environmental impact reports prepared by engineers."

© Sarah Beserra, 1999

Please Note: RLM does not endorse sites behind external links. We offer them for your additional research; external links were chosen on the basis of being the most informative online source at the time of our search.

Read more of The Plein Air Scene by Sarah Beserra in Resource Library

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

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2008 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.