Artists who work 'en plein air' share their motivations

June 5, 2010 

East Coast artist Caleb Stone recently spent two weeks in Alaska teaching students plein air painting techniques in watercolor and oil.

People driving around the Valley might have spotted the group. On May 28, students in Stone's oil painting class were set up in camp chairs with easels on South Denali Street in Palmer, near an in-city cow pasture. Earlier that week, his watercolor class painted at the musk ox farm north of town.

Meanwhile, in Anchorage, another -- less formal -- group of outdoor painting enthusiasts gathered at Ship Creek to ply their brushes under wide open skies.

If it's summer in Alaska and you're into art, plein air is where it's at.

The name for this type of painting comes from the French expression "en plein air," or "in the open air." It's a style of outdoor painting popularized by the Impressionists in the late 1800s who wished to contrast themselves with the academic realism taught in conventional ateliers -- enclosed, indoor artist studios.

Natural settings and the interplay of sunlight and shadow are highlighted in the painting style.

American artists tend to pronounce it "plain air" -- which more or less describes the setting in English about as well as the French term does in that language.

Alaska artist Ayse Gilbert noted the obstacles to painting out-of-doors in a Daily News article on the technique in 2006: "You're distracted -- by the wind, the bugs, other people interested in what you're doing," she said. "But I like how it loosens up the artwork. You have very little time; you have to make decisions very quickly. You have to call where the shadows are going to be, what colors you're going to use."

Another well-known Alaska artist experienced in plein air painting, Alexandra Sonneborg, described the difference between working in an atelier and out in the wild in a 1994 interview.

"It's a totally different experience than painting indoors," she said. "You can position the canvas so you see both the landscape subject and your working surface at the same time."

Stone, the instructor for the Valley sessions, studied at Lyme Academy in Connecticut and, according to a brochure at his website,, has won several awards, including the John Stobart Fellowship Award, the New England Heritage Award for oil painting and the Wood Award for Excellence in Watercolor. His Alaska workshops were arranged through the art department at UAA's Mat-Su campus.

The ad hoc Anchorage group meets every week for outdoor sessions in the summer, moving indoors in the winter, said plein air enthusiast Don Kolstad.

"It's not really a club," he said, "just a loose-knit group including professionals and beginners. Everyone's welcome."

They get together at 9:30 a.m. on Fridays at Coffee Land, 4505 Spenard Rd., across from the Puffin Inn, where they decide where to go to set up easels and paint away, rain or shine, in the plain air.

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