In plein sight

Area plein-air painters get outside and paint nature as it happens

Mabry Ormes

Mabry Ormes

Photo By Tom Angel

In the Garden, group exhibition through May 22. Also, “Fresh Paint” sale (works from “7 Gardens in 7 Days” painting tour), Sat. & Sun., May 22 & 23, 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.

Paradise Plein Air Painters. Shows through May. Works by Mabrie Ormes on all three floors. Shows through July 13. Plein Air Painters of Chico and Paradise. Shows through May. Five-year review of James Snidle’s works. Shows through May.

Springtime in Chico. Gardens all over town are bursting with blossoms of pink, white, red, purple, yellow. The trees are leafy-green and lush. The birds and butterflies are many and happy. It’s not too hot yet, and the plein-air painters are out in full force capturing the beauty of the time.

Plein-air—or “open-air"—painting is a practice, popularized by French Impressionists in the 19th century, in which artists work outdoors, often over the short span of two to three hours, when the light is just right, spontaneously recording on canvas the impressions of the scenes before them, with particular attention paid to the effects of sunlight on their subjects. The way the late morning sun illuminates a white lily, for instance, is just the sort of thing the plein-air artist is looking to experience.

It’s a no-brainer that an area as overflowing with natural beauty as Butte County would be an ideal locale for such activity. No fewer than five galleries are currently exhibiting plein-air works, and the recently opened Avenue 9 Gallery has also been offering classes and workshops in plein-air painting since the beginning of April. This week, in fact, gallery co-owner Dolores Mitchell is leading local artists on a “7 Gardens in 7 Days” tour of painting, culminating in a “Fresh Paint” sidewalk sale at the gallery Saturday and Sunday, May 22 and 23, where the fruits of their efforts will be sold fresh.

I spent May Day morning in the glorious Henshaw Avenue garden of local fused-glass artist Claudia Schwartz, watching a dozen or so plein-air painters, led by Paradise artist Ray Kruger, working in different sections of the huge garden, capturing their impressions in acrylics onto their canvasses.

“When you came up,” the soft-spoken Kruger said to me as he quickly stroked on bursts of yellow, “I saw the integrity of the rose.

“I have become so addicted to painting outside,” the former rodeo cowboy added after a small silence.

The peacefulness and silence of the garden was striking. As I wandered from canvas to canvas, I talked a little with the artist in front of each.

THE PAINTERLY LIFE Plein-air enthusiast Ray Kruger (above) leads a group of fellow artists in the fresh air of a Chico garden. Lois Cohen (below) and Mabrie Ormes (opposite) share samples of their plein-air work.

Photo By Tom Angel

“It’s meditative …,” “Relaxing…,” “The worries just go away…” were a few of the descriptions of the experience of painting in this environment.

At one point Kruger gathered his students, some of them accomplished painters already, such as Avenue 9 Gallery co-owner Maria Phillips and Oroville artist John Schult, around his easel for a quick little lesson. Kruger throws on some brown dots and lines indicating a roof.

“Is that what you call your calligraphy?” someone calls out. “Well, it is like that,” Kruger explains. He goes on to demonstrate his technique of holding the brush at the very end of its handle “for freedom of thought … and movement. You think it, and it occurs.”

“You gotta start movin’ before it’s premeditated,” he told me later. His point is that every painter can hold the brush with similar ease and fearlessness and create spontaneous pictures that reflect his or her own particular vision and feeling of a pine tree, rock or rose bush.

“And it doesn’t always have to be the paint you see in nature. I’m not always going to let nature tell me what to do,” Kruger adds gently. He means that an artist should feel free to interpret the color of, say, a powder-pink blossom into a vibrant hot-pink burst if the artist feels moved in the moment to express the flower in this way.

That’s is precisely what I had seen Schult do earlier in his sunny spot on the long driveway. Schult’s colors were bright yellow and pink, purple and lime green, a noticeable amplification in intensity of the actual colors before him and a captivating expression of his vision.

“It’s almost a Zen feeling,” is how plein-air artist Lois Cohen describes it. I visited this charming 85-year-old dynamo at her home in Paradise for more insight into the plein-air process. Cohen, a supremely accomplished and prolific painter who spent years working as an illustrator in the Hollywood film industry on such major films as Around the World in 80 Days and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, remembers when she first got into plein-air painting, back in Pittsburgh, Pa., at about age 16 or 17. She checked out a book from the library titled How to Make the Brush Behave so she could study up before taking her first workshop.

“It said to go to a cemetery and find trees and practice painting symbols of a tree. … So I practiced that before the workshop,” Cohen explained. She mused about her first experience doing plein-air watercolor outdoors: “…The babbling brook, and then a little snake stuck his head up. … The combination of sights and smells was magic. … It was the first one I did, and it just flowed from the brush—a combination of all the sensual things happening at once in one place that you cannot get from a photograph.”

Lois Cohen

Photo By Tom Angel

Cohen refers to the plein-air artist’s love (addiction, as Kruger described it) of painting on the spot, with all the sensual experiences that go along with that and into the painting, as opposed to taking a photograph of a scene and going back to a studio to paint from it.

It is an addiction that San Francisco/ Chico-based plein-air artist and gallery owner James Snidle has happily acquired from his time spent with Cohen. Snidle first became acquainted with Cohen when he started selling her work at his gallery about 12 years ago. They became fast friends and painting partners and, encouraged by Cohen, who is in the habit of painting every day, they went out “every single week, rain or shine,” to paint.

“We would find a place and attempt to recreate what we saw,” Snidle recalled. “We painted together once a week for 10 years. … It had to be catastrophically pouring to not paint. Going out [with Cohen] for those 10 years cemented my ability to paint, established my own style. Lois Cohen is my whole inspiration for becoming a landscape painter.”

Before immersing himself in plein-air painting, Snidle explained that he used to do “more personal painting, developing a personal mythology. My paintings were figurative, reactions to things happening in my life, like my reaction to the AIDS crisis and the deaths of some people who were young and vital.” Over the course of painting with Cohen, Snidle says his paintings “became very, very happy. … I love doing gardens. It’s meditative, a wonderful process to be involved in.”

Mabrie Ormes also loves doing gardens. In fact, this local oil painter so loves to immerse herself in garden painting that she prefers “to be living in the place where I’m painting,” a practice that began for Ormes when she first housesat for three months—four years ago—for friends in Butte Creek Canyon who have a particularly beautiful garden. Ormes pitched a tent in the middle of it and daily painted to her heart’s content, beginning a habit of doing 30-40 paintings in a summer.

Ormes then uses these garden paintings as studies for the much larger garden paintings that she goes back to her West Second Street studio to create, making her unusual among plein-air painters, in that they don’t normally take their paintings beyond the step of first impressions on location or paint on giant canvasses.

Standing in front of one such bigger-than-life-size, invigoratingly colorful painting in her studio, Ormes gets excited telling me about the prospect of making an enlargement from this enlargement. She speaks with an almost giddy joy about the process she will go through to make the garlic flower in the painting even bigger and more imposing.

“The point is to bring the viewer in, by using the gesture of my hand, so you can feel my body. I’m asking the viewer to viscerally feel my painting.” Ormes speaks of the sensual pleasure of “the feeling of the body moving along the painting, of exercising in front of [this very large canvas],” as she moves in front of the painting making sweeping gestures imitating brush strokes.

All of the painters I spent time with spoke of the sensuality and Zen-like quality of plein-air painting. I felt it when I was in the garden on May Day and in the conversations I had with each artist. "It’s a therapeutic thing," Kruger calmly told me.